Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Sunday Dec. 28, 7529 (Jan. 10, 2021 on the civil calendar)
Christ is Born!
Today’s Gospel reading includes the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. The corrupt and murderous Herod tried to kill the Christ child but his evil plan failed. According to one pious tradition, the Wise Thief while the Holy Family was fleeing to Egypt helped protect them from other thieves. Years later on the Cross he asked our Lord to remember Him when he came into His Kingdom. As the Church tells us in a hymn, the Wise Thief “stole” Paradise while being crucified next to Jesus Christ, and in fact he is remembered in Slavonic tradition as St. Rakh, a name that seems derived from “Paradise.”
Our Church history is full of martyrs who find Paradise beyond suffering, through their faith in our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, from ancient times to the new martyrs and confessors of the Bolshevik yoke, through today. Holy Martyrs pray to God for us! Martyr means witness in Greek. As our Lord Jesus Christ’s victory over the temptations made by Satan to Him in the wilderness shows, we should not tempt God and man in defying death without God’s grace, to keep ourselves whole for repentance and for service until it is our time. But we should be ready even so for our time to witness, with God’s Providence to stand for the truth when called by Him. Like Herod, evil powers still seek to erase the good news of the Gospel of our Lord God. Like the Wise Thief we can pray for the opportunity to repent and stand for Him, even if at the end of our life.
Herod sought to erase the Incarnation even as atheistic cultural-totalitarian movements try to do so today through their own destructive delusions. The Apostle John warned that the very spirit of anti-Christ is the denial of our Lord’s Incarnation in the flesh. To counteract that spirit of anti-Christ is why, according to tradition, the Emperor Saint Justinian required that the moving hymn “Only Begotten Son” be included in the Divine Liturgy in the Second Antiphon, as we sang it already today here far away and centuries later: “Only-Begotten Son and Immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, Who without change didst become man and was crucified, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!” In relation to this, it is good for us to remember that the cave where our Lord Jesus Christ was born prefigured also the tomb where He would be placed, and his swaddling clothes the graveclothes, of His Crucifixion followed by His glorious Resurrection.
Long before I became Orthodox, I was moved by a reflection “One Solitary Life” by a Protestant preacher in early 20th century California, which still evokes, in frontier-American-style familiar to us too in this season of Old Christmas in northern Appalachia, the spirit of the first Christmas in Bethlehem, needing for completion only the fullness of theology and ecclesiology of the ancient living faith of Orthodoxy (the “one holy apostolic and catholic Church” of the Nicene Creed), which our mission work can give to our country today with God’s grace. The preacher, James Allan Francis, wrote:
“Here is a man who was born in an obscure village as the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another obscure village. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty and then for three years was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He had nothing to do with this world except the naked power of his divine manhood. While still a young man the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. Another betrayed him. He was turned over to his enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon the cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth while he was dying, and that was his coat. When he was dead, he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today he is the center of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that were ever built, and all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon the earth as powerfully as has this one solitary life.”
As Orthodox Christians, we celebrate the joy of the Star of Bethlehem and the songs of the angels to the shepherds, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in a humble cave, the coming of the Wise Men following the star to worship Him. Yet we see in the past week’s news in America more signs that we live in latter days of which the Gospels warn us to be watchful, which some Orthodox hierarchs felt began in earnest with the fall of the last great Orthodox empire only a little more than a century ago. Many Americans across the political spectrum this week commented on how the Battle of the Capitol, on our Christmas Eve, was an abomination of desolation in the civic temple of America, the seat of Congress. One memorable image featured a half-naked man wearing a shaman animal headdress at the podium of the U.S. Senate chamber. It seemed that the barbarians had come. Lord have mercy on all killed and afflicted.
But the outrage felt at the so-called desecration of the Capitol as a building is misplaced. It is not a temple of God, such as those destroyed and/or desecrated by the Bolsheviks and by atheistic radicals in our own time. Even as a secular monument, the U.S. Capitol, constructed partly by slaves in pagan imperial Roman style, sadly had been desecrated across generations by many documented immoralities and corruptions within its hidden corridors and rooms of power. Our Congress itself in that building will seek this year further to desecrate what Christian Scripture calls the “temple of the Holy Spirit,” man’s body, by setting up an official atheistic anthropology and cosmology of sex as the coercive law of the land, enacting the so-called Equality Act, which will further threaten the religious freedom and livelihoods of traditional Christians whose cosmological culture is based in anthropology of the Orthodox Church, and also likely by forcing taxpayers nationwide to fund abortions, which continue to kill hundreds of thousands of innocents annually in America today, disproportionately minority children. Our administrative state, increasingly entwined with state corporate capitalism, in its monumental complexes in Washington like the Capitol has accelerated in its embrace of secular materialism in recent eras, drawing up new laws at odds with the law of God, based in an ever-deepening nihilistic consumer culture, including: Re-defining marriage by official fiat, mandating total secularization of public school curricula, and establishing national compulsory rights to abortion and transgenderism, requiring support from religious groups and people contrary to their own beliefs and practices. The tragic events and shocking images on our old Christmas Eve (Jan. 6) at the U.S. Capitol symbolize to the discerning faithful a coming reckoning for our nation, similar to how disaster came to the children of Israel of old, the handwriting on the wall for Babylon, and how, as with Herod, mass chaos and violence follow efforts to erase the Incarnation of Christ from history. It is, to use Thomas Jefferson’s prophetic words with regard to the coming of the Civil War, a spiritual “fire bell in the night.”
For the so-called “Battle of the Capitol” also symbolized tragically the loss of our country’s Union “under God” that our forefathers died for in the Civil War and other conflicts, the underlying spiritual unity that Russian Orthodox philosophers call sobornost. With all their flaws, most of the American founders, from the signers of the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence, to Washington, the Adamses, and Lincoln, emphasized how faith and virtue and morality in the Christian sense were all foundational to the American republic. This was still largely if often sadly only nominally accepted across generations. But in the past year of plague, this union has been breached, most visibly first by what has been called the “Floyd Rebellion” and now the “Battle of the Capitol.” Large parts of the public across the political spectrum now openly reject Lincoln’s Union for the first time since the Civil War, on the one hand alleging it to have been corruptly systemically racist from the start, and on the other hand as so corrupt as to only work today for the elites. The old civic religion, based in generic Protestantism, lacking the fullness of Orthodoxy and undermined by cultural Marxism‘s strange wedding with consumer capitalism in an age of virtual reality, has crumbled.
It should be that much clearer to us here today as Americans, as has always been the case, that only the Orthodox Gospel will save us, our families, our communities, and spiritually our country. The fulness of Orthodoxy provides our Ark, not the Constitution nor any supposedly sacred spaces in Washington, D.C.. Locally, we must re-double our efforts on behalf of our mission this year to start building a Church home on our land in the country, to engage our friends and neighbors through evangelism in our rural region, and with God’s grace and with participation in worship to rededicate our spiritual lives in the Church. The hour grows late, brothers and sisters, but the good news is that the star of Bethlehem shines brighter in the darkness. Where people only find truth in self-willed feeling, material comfort, and subjective truths of their passions or socially constructed identities — racial and sexual affinities and historically limited ideologies, all ending in lonely nihilisms –there is no objective truth to serve, only what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called the “permanent lie” of raw power, which ultimately is demonic in nature. We are blessed by God to know that our freedom lies not in material tribes or comforts, or political parties, but in service to the truth of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who is the truth that makes us free, and who loves mankind. We live in the Israel of His Church, which is apostolic and catholic, in sobornost, the spiritual union and community, the freedom and meaningfulness, which He offers to all mankind. Truly, wise men still seek Him.
To close, joyfully in our bright sorrow, we remember that the Christmas season is a time for new birth. It comes at the time of the civil new year, which on the old calendar will arrive this week. We also have the new Church year in September, and sooner another time of renewal at Great Lent, and with the Annunciation and glorious Pascha. Each day of our life God offers us another day for redemption, for a day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day, and this is the day the Lord hath made. Let us as Christian witnesses in America today, praying for wisdom, live each day in community as if it is our last, because it may be, making the most of the opportunity God graciously gives us each moment for faith and repentance and living in His grace. As St. Herman of Alaska put it, “from this day forth, from this very hour and this very minute, let us love love God above all and seek to accomplish His Holy Will.”
Through our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom be all glory, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Christ is Born!