Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017 Christmas Day Liturgy Homily

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Six weeks ago, we began the Advent season looking at Christmas through the eyes of the world. Christmas Eve, we looked at Christmas through the eyes of Mary and Joseph. Today, we look at Christmas through the eyes of the shepherds and the Magi, or wise men.

Christ’s Nativity happened so long ago that sometimes it seems out of touch with our modern times. I once saw a “Dennis the Menace” cartoon where Dennis is saying to Joey: “People used to wish upon a falling star. . . I think that was before they had catalogs.” Today, Dennis would say, “That was before the Internet!” You can actually set up a “Wish List” on your Amazon account. Christmas was before we had a lot of things, but it brought the One thing that we needed more than anything else.

Christmas was such a long time ago that we have tended to idealize it, make it more glamorous and charming than it really was. Christmas was a real-life event, and it caused real-life problems as well as being wonderful. It was, and still is, the most important event in human history, and certainly the greatest and most wonderful thing God has ever done for the human family. But at the time, it was mysterious, and the events proved chaotic for those involved. Simeon accurately prophesied to Mary: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).

No one, including Joseph and Mary, fully realized what was happening. No one understood what it was really all about. It is not always easy to understand why God does things the way He does. The Lord said through Isaiah the prophet: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). The events of Christmas proved the truth of that scripture passage if nothing else does.

As a Christian, I do not always understand why God does the things He does, but I have learned to trust Him, even though His will for me may not always be easy or even make sense to me. Perhaps you wish God would do things differently in your life to make it easier, but His will, even though it may not always be easy, is always best. The test comes when we decide whether or not to believe that and act as though it were true.

I am sure if it were up to us to plan that first Christmas we would have done things quite differently. Let us take, for instance, the people God chose to tell about the coming birth of His Son. Think for a minute about how many people really knew that God was sending His Son into the world on that wonderful night. The greatest event in human history, and yet, out of all of the people in the world there were not a dozen people that were told about it, and they were very unimportant people according to the world’s standards.

Let us start by looking at the most obvious feature of the Nativity Narrative. Who does God announce the birth of His Son to? Who does He invite to come and see the new baby? A ragtag collection of sheep herders! There is only one announcement of Christ’s birth recorded in the Scriptures, only one invitation from God to anyone to come visit Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. And that one invitation goes to a bunch of uneducated, smelly, low-class, social and religious outcasts, a bunch of shepherds.

Let me tell you a little more information about shepherds. According to Jewish religious law, these men were unclean. Their line of work prevented them from participating in the feasts and holy days that made up the Jewish religious calendar. Why? Well, somebody had to watch the sheep. When everyone else was making the trip to Jerusalem to make sacrifices at the temple, or to participate in one of the annual feasts, they were out in the fields, watching over the sheep. It was not really their fault. But they were looked down on, from a religious point of view. Whatever might have been in their hearts, they were not able to participate fully in the religious life of the community.

The shepherds were also considered borderline social outcasts. Since they were constantly on the move to find new pasture for their flocks, they were looked on with suspicion. They were often accused of being thieves. If something came up missing, it must have been those shepherds. They were not permitted to give testimony in a legal proceeding because their word was not considered trustworthy. And on top of all that, they really did not have much contact with other people. Most of the time, they were “living out in the fields.” Theirs’ was not a 40-hour a week job. They did not come home at night. They were with the sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During the day, they led the sheep to grass and water. They watched while the sheep grazed. They kept an eye out for predators like wolves. And at night, they actually slept in the sheep pen with the sheep to guard them against theft and animal attack. A good shepherd could identify each one of his sheep by sight. He knew his sheep and they knew him.

St. John the Evangelist says, “The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:2-4).

Being a shepherd was lonely, wearisome, usually very boring and tedious, and sometimes extremely dangerous. It gave them a lot of contact with sheep, but very little exposure to people. No wonder that David in the Old Testament, the shepherd who became king of Israel, was such an accomplished musician. Many shepherds learned to play the flute or some other instrument because they had hours and hours with nothing to do but watch sheep eat grass. [Does that make you feel any better about your job?]. Shepherds just did not have much social contact. Put it this way, you probably would not want your daughter to marry one.

Imagine what it must have been like for the shepherds. They were sitting around a campfire on what must have seemed like any other night. Suddenly, the fire seemed to get unusually bright. The whole night went crazy, and as they looked up they saw an angel, a messenger from God. Then the sky was filled with all the heavenly host. Before the angel could say anything, he had to calm the shepherds down. “Fear not!”, he said for fear had gripped them. They were so afraid they could not move or speak. After the angel reassured them, he told them the most wonderful news that has ever fallen on human ears: the long-awaited Messiah, God’s own Son, had been born into the world that very night, not far from where they were tending sheep.

You know they must have had unbelievable emotions at that point. And then they saw the heavens open with an army of angels praising God with music and singing like they had never heard before. That must have been one of the most overwhelming experiences any human being has ever had. As soon as it was over, they went rushing to Bethlehem to see what the angels were talking about.

It must have surprised the shepherds that no one else was there. I wonder if they really expected to see the Messiah. They probably felt that there would surely be a crowd pressing on Him and that they might get to be a part of the crowd who were witnesses to such a great and awesome event. And even though the angel told them that the baby would be lying in a feed trough, it must have shocked them a bit to see the less than ideal surroundings for such an important birth.

And what about the Magi, those foreign astrologers, those philosophers, or wise men as they are called? After Jesus was born, Wise Men came to look for Him, probably from an area which is now either in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Although they are often called the Three Kings, Scripture does not say how many there were, or that they were even kings. One theory is that they might have been Kings of Yemen, as, during this time, the Kings of Yemen were Jews. Three is the traditional number because of the three gifts which they brought and laid before the Newborn Infant: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But however many there actually were of them, they probably would have had many more servants with them.

The Magi were definitely men of great learning. The word Magi comes from the Greek word ‘Magos’ (where the English word ‘magic’ comes from). Magos itself comes from the old Persian word ‘Magupati’. This was the title given to priests in a sect of the ancient Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism. Today, we would call them astrologers. Back then astronomy and astrology were part of the same studies and went hand-in-hand with each other. The Magi would have followed the patterns of the stars religiously. They would have also probably been very rich and held in high esteem in their own society and by people who were not from their country or of their religion.

So, we see on the one hand the shepherds: poor, uneducated, marginalized, and just barely getting by. On the other hand, we have the Magi: rich, intelligent, and held in high esteem. Both groups find their way to the stable and the manger where the Christ Child lay sleeping among animals.

What exactly then is the message that the story of the shepherds and the Magi conveys to us? Several possible answers have been proposed, such as the fact that Jesus Himself is later called the Good Shepherd, caring for us as His flock. But I prefer a simpler explanation. God wanted to show that His love does not discriminate on the basis of class, or wealth, or social standing. He does not respect kings and princes more than hourly laborers, He does not value bishops and priests above the people in the pews. God does not show favoritism; He does not give preferential treatment to one group of people over another. His love is available to all poor or rich, saints and sinners, fools and wise men.

In fact, many passages of Scripture indicate that God loves to lift up the lowly and humble, while at the same time bringing down the proud and self-satisfied:

“You save the humble, but Your eyes are on the haughty to bring them low” (2 Samuel 22:28).

“For the Lord takes delight in His people; He crowns the humble with salvation” (Psalm 149:4).

“This is what the Lord says: . . . "This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:1-2).

“For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

"God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).

In other words, God demonstrated by the story of the shepherds and the Magi that Jesus was not going to be the Savior of only the political, social and religious elite. He was not going to be the Savior only of kings and governors, or popes and priests, but the Savior of all equally; He does not give preference to any group or any class. Nor does He discriminate on the basis of intelligence, or education, or wealth, or profession, or political power, or social standing, or any of the other qualities that human beings judge by. His love is offered indiscriminately to anyone who will repent and believe, anyone who will trust in Him as Savior.

St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, makes the same point: "Brethren, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things; and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him. It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God, that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, it is written, "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord"' (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

In other words, God especially likes to use people who are humble and lowly and ordinary, because that makes His power and wisdom all the more evident. When He uses people who are obviously very gifted and powerful, then the results can be attributed to human effort and human talent. But if He uses people of obviously low to average abilities, then all the credit for the results go to Him.

So, what does all this mean for us? Well, if you identify with the shepherds, it should be very encouraging. Perhaps you see yourself as kind of on the outside looking in. I imagine that many nights, as the shepherds sat out in those cold, lonely fields, with nothing but dumb animals to keep them company, they looked over at the village, saw the lights of the homes, and heard the faint sound of families, people laughing, and wished they could be a part of that. Maybe you have felt that way too. Not one of the “beautiful people,” not especially wealthy or powerful or influential. Not likely to ever see your name in the paper for some great accomplishment. On the fringes socially.

Maybe, when you compare your level of religious observance to others, the comparison is not favorable. Spotty church attendance, little Bible reading, infrequent prayer. You think that if God is even aware you exist, He probably does not have a very favorable opinion of you. And you know what? A lot of people, deep down, secretly feel like that. Even people you would think of as “having it all together”. On the surface, everything is going great. But on the inside, they feel like you do not fit in. They feel like God does not really care about them.

If any of that description strikes a chord with you, then I have good news. Great news. The best news possible. God loves you. Just like He loved the shepherds. Just like He loved the Magi. You are special to Him. Just like those shepherds were special to Him, so special that He gave them the incredible privilege of being the first to hear of Christ’s birth, being the first people other than Joseph and Mary to lay eyes on the Son of God, being the first to tell others about Christ. He did not give those privileges to the Roman Caesar or to the Jewish high priest, He gave it to the shepherds; not in spite of who they were, but because of who they were: humble, ordinary people with no high opinions of themselves. Simple people who were willing to simply believe what God told them and to simply do what God commanded them.

When they heard the news, they did not seek out the religious professionals for a second opinion. They simply accepted what the angels told them. When they were invited to visit Bethlehem to see the newborn Messiah, they did not worry about who was going to watch their sheep. They did not get bogged down in debates about how they were going to find one small baby in such a large town. They simply obeyed and went.

But what if you do not identify with the shepherds? What if you identify with the Magi, the social and religious elite, the gifted, the accomplished, the powerful? Then recognize that in God’s sight, you are on the same level as everyone else. Do not fool yourselves into thinking that you have a head start with God. In fact, anything that causes you to think too highly of yourself; anything that stimulates pride, actually puts you farther behind. If that is the case, then ask God to purify your heart and grant you true humility. Understand that you are accepted before God on the same basis as everyone else: not because of anything you are, or anything you have done, but only because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who suffered and gave His life for your sins so that you could receive forgiveness and have eternal life. Humble yourself before God, so that He does not have to do it for you.

The story of the shepherds and the Magi is meant to show us that God does break into human history and into individual human lives. It may be that most of our days are common, but we need to expect those days when the uncommon happens, and we are face to face with God and what He is doing in the world. We need to dare to believe; to dream big, and believe God for the miraculous and supernatural. We need to live like we are walking in God’s mysterious presence where anything can happen. God is in the business of the unusual, just when the texture of life seems most ordinary. We need to live in the excitement of God’s plan that can interrupt our routine world and jettison us into a whole new dimension of existence and experience. That is how we are to approach every day of our lives.

God did not send an angel to give you the good news, but He did send me, and He did give you His word. God is inviting you today, just as He invited the shepherds and accepted their worship and adoration and that of the Magi, to receive His gift of love. Will you receive His love? Will you believe what He says and do what He asks? Will you acknowledge your need for forgiveness and put your trust in Jesus Christ for salvation? You do not need to be a genius or a member of the “in” crowd. You just need to believe and obey. Listen to Christ’s promise: “For God so loved the world that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

I pray you will make the decision to receive the Christmas Gift of Love into your hearts and lives. And please tell me about it when you do, so that I can help you with the next step of developing a relationship with Christ.

Finally, remember what the shepherds and Magi did in response to what they had seen and heard. They “spread the word.” Let you and I do the same, especially at this time of the year, for the sake of all the others who are still waiting to hear the Good News.

I wish you all a very blessed and Merry Christmas. Christ is born! Let us rejoice and be glad, for this is the day the Lord has made, and it is marvelous in our eyes!

Christ is born!

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