Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Monday, December 25, 2017

2017 Nativity Encyclical

Stephen, Archbishop of Siracusa and of All Sicily and Calabria, Metropolitan of the Americas and Canada of the Italo-Greeks, Primate of the Italo-Greek (Italo-Byzantine) Orthodox Catholic Church, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle of the Faith and a shepherd of Christ’s Holy Church, to the plentitude of the Church and all People of Good Will: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

For many, Christmas is the time to think of Jesus Christ as a baby in a manger. While the birth of Christ is a special and miraculous event, it is not the primary focus of our attention. The central truth of the Christmas story is this: the Child of Christmas is God. Christmas is not about the Savior's infancy; it is about His deity. The humble birth of Jesus Christ was never intended to conceal the reality that God was being born into the world. But the modern world's version of Christmas does just that. And, consequently, for the greater part of humanity, Christmas has no legitimate meaning at all.

The world, which has become secular and non-believing, has turned away from God so much that Christmas has become nothing more than a winter holiday, with no reference to Christ or God at all. In fact, Santa Claus has become the center of attention for Christmas. With Santa Claus comes the expectation and anticipation of toys, lots of toys. Christmas has become a season of stress, of going into unnecessary and ridiculous debt, of parties and dinners that evoke mindless human emotions that have absolutely no reference to the real reason why we gather together to celebrate.

It is ironic that Christmas, which celebrates the birth of the Redeemer and Savior of the world, is the reason stores and businesses of every kind make millions upon millions of dollars over the period of thirty days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, yet they refuse to acknowledge Christmas at all. Christ is no longer in Christmas. It is now more proper to say, “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” Christ is no longer the reason for the season, Santa Claus is. That is why more and more people no longer attend divine services on Christmas. The true meaning and spirit of Christmas have been lost. Sadly, many Christian denominations and even the Church itself have given in to the secularization of Christmas.

I do not suppose anyone can ever fathom what it means for God to be born in a manger. How does one explain the Almighty stooping to become a tiny infant? Our minds cannot begin to understand what was involved in God's becoming man. Nor can anyone explain how God could become a baby. Yet He did. Without forsaking His divine nature or diminishing His deity, He was born into our world as a tiny infant. He was fully human, with all the needs and emotions that are common to us all. Yet He was also fully God, all wise and all powerful.

For nearly 2,100 years, a debate has been raging about who Jesus really is. Cults and skeptics have offered various explanations. They will say He is one of many gods, a created being, a high angel, a good teacher, a prophet, a kind man, and so on. The common thread of all such theories is that they make Jesus less than God. But the biblical evidence is overwhelming that this child in the manger was the incarnation of God.

One passage, in particular, written by the Apostle Paul, captures the essence of Jesus' divine nature and underscores the truths that make Christmas truly wonderful. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities, all things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him, all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the Church; He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent. For in Him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His Cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).

Paul was writing to the Christians at Colossae was prompted by the fact that the city was under the influence of what came to be known as Gnosticism. Its adherents fancied themselves the only ones who had access to the truth, which they believed was so complex that common people could not know it. Among other things, they taught philosophical dualism--the idea that matter is evil and spirit is good. They believed that because God is spirit, He is good, but He could never touch matter, which is evil. Therefore, they also concluded that God could not be the creator of the physical universe because if God made matter, He would be responsible for evil. And they taught that God could never become a man because as a man He would have to dwell in a body made of evil matter.

Those pre-gnostics explained away the Incarnation by saying that Jesus was a good angel whose body was only an illusion. That teaching and others like it pervaded the early Church; many of the New Testament epistles specifically refute pre-gnostic ideas. In fact, the Apostle John attacked the foundation of gnostic teaching when he wrote: "By this, you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God."

The Apostle Paul refuted that same heresy when he wrote, "By Him, all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, all things have been created by Him and for Him" (1:16). St. Paul specifically affirmed that Jesus is God in the flesh, the Creator of everything.

Those who seek today to discredit the reality of Christmas suggest, for example, that the phrase "the image of the invisible God" (v. 15) hints that Jesus was merely a created being who bore the image of God in the same sense as all humanity. But the truth is, though we were created in God's likeness, we only resemble Him. Jesus, on the other hand, is God's exact image. He possesses the same essence of the Father.

The word "image" as translated from the Greek New Testament means a perfect replica, a precise copy, a duplicate. St. Paul was saying that God Himself is fully manifest in the Person of His Son, who is none other than Jesus Christ. He is the exact image of God. Jesus Himself said, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).

St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews parallels Colossians 1:15-20 at a number of key points. Regarding the statement that Christ is the image of God, for example, Hebrews 1:3 makes an identical affirmation: "He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature." Christ is to God as the warm brilliance of light is to the sun. He brings God from a cosmic location to the very hearts of men and women. He gives light and life. He reveals God's very essence. They cannot be divided, and neither has ever existed without the other: they are one (John 10:30).

Scripture repeatedly says that God is invisible (John 1:18: 5:37, 1 Timothy 1:17 and Colossians 1:15. But through Christ, the invisible God has been made visible. God's full likeness is revealed in Him. Colossians 1:19 takes the truth a step further: "It was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him." Jesus is not just an outline of God; He is fully God. Colossians 2:9 is even more explicit: "In Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form." Nothing is lacking. No attribute is absent. He is God in the fullest possible sense, the perfect image.

In Colossians 1:15, Paul says Jesus is "the firstborn of all creation." Those who reject the deity of Christ have made much of that phrase, assuming it means Jesus was a created being. But the word translated "firstborn" describes Jesus' rank, not His origin. The first-born in a Hebrew family was the heir, the ranking one, the one who had the right of inheritance. And in a royal family, he had the right to rule. So, Christ is the One who inherits all creation and the right to rule over it. It does not mean He was born first in order, for He was not.

In Psalm 89:27, God says of David, "I also shall make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth." There the meaning of "firstborn" is given in plain language: "the highest of the kings of the earth." That is what first-born means: Christ is "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Revelation 17:16).

Hebrews 1 again has a parallel statement. Verse two says God has appointed His Son "heir of all things." He is the primary One, the Son who has the right to the inheritance, the ranking Person, the Lord of all, heir of all creation.

The claim that "firstborn" means Christ is a created being completely ignores the context of Colossians 1:15. Remember, you have already heard verses 16 and 17 explicitly name Him as Creator of everything. Christ is not part of creation; He is the Creator, the very arm of God, active from the beginning in calling the universe and all creatures into existence. John 1:3 says, "All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being." That could not be true if He were Himself a created being.

Hebrews 1:2 also identifies Christ as the Creator. Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity through whom the world was made and for whom it was fashioned. It is this Deity, this Holy Infant lying in a manger before Whom we bow down in worship and adoration, that is the reason for our celebrations. Christ truly is the reason for the season. There would be no Christmas had not Christ, the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father, been born in the flesh of a human being, a woman pure, immaculate. and sinless.

Were it not for Jesus Christ, Christmas unfriendly stores like Barnes & Noble, Family Dollar, Staples, and Starbucks, just to name a few would not reap in the profits they do during the Christmas season. Even those stores and businesses which are Christmas friendly owe their financial health and profitability to the King of kings and Lord of lords, for without Him they would not see increased sales and profits during the season attributed to His birth.

Yet, the sad reality is this season is not about Christ, for many do not believe that God took upon Himself human flesh and was born into humanity. Thus, the religious and spiritual aspect of Christmas has faded in the hearts and minds of many. It is why many people experience depression during the Christmas season. It is why the number of suicides and suicide attempts increases during the Christmas season.

People have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas and their hearts have become cold. The joy and peace and exultation that the Feast of the Nativity brings to humanity is lost in the darkness of disbelief and doubt. But all is not lost or hopeless. There is still time for all of us to reflect on and change our attitudes towards Christmas and towards Christ.

Into this cynical world, true Hope was born. But the tragedy of that first Christmas was that very few realized the hope that had been introduced into the human experience. Hope for the forgiveness of sins. Hope for a bright future forever. Hope for God’s presence and power in daily living. Hope that would enable us to forget the past and set our sights on things that do not disappoint, the eternal things of God. A hope that, because of Jesus, is a certainty and not just another wish to be dashed on the rocks of reality.

I love the honesty of the Psalmist who said, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5). Rejoice, beloved, that Jesus came to give you something better than the disappointments of life on earth. And when by faith you embrace Him and all that He promised, you can have a hope that is no longer a fingers-crossed wish that you harbor in your heart, but rather a confident, courageous optimism that is rooted in the certainty of His Word.

Christmas is a glorious and great mystery. This is the greatest mystery in all of history, how God Himself became fully human without ceasing to be fully divine; that God, in all His divinity, united Himself with all humanness. The Church defines this union as “the hypostatic union,” the joining of two distinct natures in one undivided Person (“hypostatic” is just a fancy word for “personal”). Jesus is fully God and fully man in one spectacular person. And this union of God and man in Jesus is what makes possible our own union with the Godhead through Him. But the greatest mystery is not how we are united to God by faith, through sheer grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, but how God united Himself to us in the one person of Christ.

The humanity and divinity of Jesus is often the most difficult thing for many people to understand. They are quick to embrace Christ’s humanity but struggle with His divinity. Yet, we have all learned from day one that Jesus is God. Nevertheless, many people today question and doubt the assertion and teaching that Jesus is, in fact, God. They understand, accept, and acknowledge that He was a real and genuine man, and is a real and genuine man, but they cannot accept that He is also God. Such a claim seems to them illogical, unreasonable, and impossible.

The early Church Fathers and Councils took great pains to guard us against error when it comes to this great Christmas mystery in the person of Christ. They declared four profound truths:  1) Jesus is fully God, 2) and fully man, 3) as one person, 4) with two natures. This is the faith of the Church; the faith which we have confessed and unashamedly proclaimed for more than 2,100 years.

One difficulty in this for the human mind is that we are prone to think of divine and human in mutually exclusive terms. We might speculate, If He “became a man,” He must have ceased, in some sense, to be God.” Then we come across a text like Philippians 2:7 that says, “He emptied Himself,” and ask, Did He empty Himself of attributes of deity? The answer, obviously, is “no.” The expression is not what He emptied Himself of; it is an idiomatic way of saying He became a nobody. He humbled Himself completely, not only to become a human being, but to go all the way to the ignominy, shame, and torture of the cross. The expression “He humbled Himself” speaks about the astonishing, unequal, unimaginable, indescribable, self-humiliation in becoming human and then going so far not only to be a slave but a slave who dies on the cross.

The Incarnation remains a great mystery, even to the greatest theologians of the Church past and present, but Scripture does not leave everything enigmatic. There are three important lessons this otherwise mysterious doctrine reveals.

First, divinity and humanity are not mutually exclusive. The two natures do not diminish each other.  Jesus is genuinely human, with all that means, and genuinely God, with all that means, in two natures that maintain distinctness, even while, at the same time, we insist that they are so united that He is but one person. It is language like this that is needed to preserve all the different contributing voices of the New Testament to explain adequately, in summary form, what the Bible says about Jesus as the God-man. And this lesson in the person of Christ, that full divinity and full humanity are complementary, provides a glimpse into other mind-bending, multi-dimensional realities as well, like the divine-human authorship of Scripture, and the divine-human tension between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

Second, humanity matters, as do our menial lives. Jesus spent three decades as “a working-class day-laborer in a completely-out-of-the-way place.” Year after year of His quiet life, before launching into “public ministry,” serves as a remarkable affirmation and sanctification of our mundane and obscure lives. And His becoming man also highlights the amazing value, privilege, and dignity of humanity as God’s climactic creatures. Even above angels. These “things that have now been announced to us by those who preached the good news” are “things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12). It is not an angel who now sits on the throne of the universe, but a man (Hebrews 2:9). What an amazing thing it is that Jesus is “not ashamed to call us His brothers” (Hebrews 2:11).

Third, Jesus is the linchpin of prayer and worship. In becoming man, Jesus became for us the “visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). He is the radiance of His Father’s glory (Hebrews 1:3). Our “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” comes “in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6), and He is the singular “lamp” who will give the light of the glory of God in a new creation with no need of sun or moon (Revelation 21:23).

The greatest mystery of Christmas is also its greatest revelation. God has joined Himself with us forever. This is the real celebration of Christmas. This is the true meaning of Christmas. The Babe in Bethlehem is God. He made everything and does everything. Rejoice, therefore, and be glad, O People of God, for unto you is born today a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!

May the joy, peace, hope, and promise of the birth of the King of Kings be yours in abundance this day and throughout the New Year!

Amen.


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