Adapted from a homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg PA on Sunday Dec. 27, 7530 (civil calendar Jan. 9, 2022).
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
The Star from Jacob prophesied in the Old Testament (Numbers 24:17–19), misinterpreted by some as pointing toward a Messiah who would establish an earthly kingdom, was much more revolutionary in a spiritual sense in its fulfillment. For the Star that came to Bethlehem led the Magi or “Wise Men” to a humble cave where the young Virgin Mother had given birth to the Creator as a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, greeted there also by an ox and an ass. As the Evangelist Luke tells us:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
One of the most memorable few moments in the “golden age” of American television (such as it was!) involved the reading of the above passage from Luke on a national prime-time show, a move strongly opposed by some TV executives involved, even as it was successfully championed by the show’s creator.
In the dark night of our own times and land, so many centuries later, the country singer Paul Overstreet with Taylor Dunn also wrote a memorable song inspired by that long-ago event, entitled “Wise Men Still Seek Him.”
For years they must have watched the heavens day and night.
How else could they have known a new star was in sight.
It wasn’t in the papers, wasn’t in the TV Guide.
I’m not really sure how they did, but somehow they got wise.
They rode their camels across the desert’s burning sand.
They couldn’t fly you know there were no planes back then.
Then they met ol’ Herod, who was out to steal their joy.
But they brushed ol’ Herod off and found God’s baby boy.
Wise men, still seek Him.
Those on earth who realize how much they need Him.
Following Jesus wherever He may lead them….
Well today they travel different, but they’re wise men just the same.
Still talking about the Savior and that blessed night He came.
I hear ol’ Herod’s out there still trying to deceive.
But a whole world of Herods can’t stop those who believe….
Bringing gifts to offer Him just like they did before.
“Wise men” doesn’t mean smart or clever or institutionally certified, supposedly better cultured or elite. We know the wisdom of the Lord confounds the sophisticated and is simple in faith and pure in heart, yet infinitely deep in the understanding that our Lord unfolds to those in faith who struggle ascetically to find truth in Him. Signs of nature such as the stars may have stirred the Wise Men, but Church Tradition tells us the Star of Bethlehem was an Angel guiding them through their faith and in their good hearts and willingness to struggle to find the Truth in their journey.
All of this was long glimpsed and revered at least in part in American culture, and if not so much today, the renewed presence in the world of Orthodox Christianity brings the mystery of Christmas to a fuller view each year at this time. The Orthodox Troparion hymn of the Nativity tells us:
Thy birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Thy birth those who adored stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Justice,
and to know Thee, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to Thee.
In iconography the Star of Bethlehem often is a dark aureola, a semicircle at the top of the icon, indicating the uncreated light of God’s energies, a ray pointing to where the Child lay, with sometimes the faint image of an angel drawn inside. As an earlier Protestant American hymn writer put it:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
A similar reflection on the Baby found under the Star is voiced in the famous short essay “One Solitary Life,” based on a sermon in Los Angeles in 1926 by the Protestant Rev. James Allen Francis.
He was born in an obscure village, The child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, Where he worked in a carpenter shop Until he was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles From the place where he was born. He did none of the things One usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only thirty-three When the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies. And went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross Between two thieves. While he was dying, His executioners gambled for his clothing, The only property he had on Earth. When he was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave Through the pity of a friend. Twenty centuries have come and gone, And today he is the central figure Of the human race, And the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that ever marched, All the navies that ever sailed, All the parliament that ever sat, All the kings that ever reigned, Put together have not affected The life of man on Earth As much as that One Solitary Life.
Later “One Solitary Life” was read in a TV broadcast from the White House in 1982, by an American President, in what would be an unimaginable act today.
While many consider American culture today to be “post-Christian,” the core of Rev. Francis’ piece remains true today as it has been from the beginning of the world in God’s plan, but is shown forth most fully in the beauty of the Orthodox Christian services of the Nativity. Traditionally they are celebrated on Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar, which is Jan. 7 on the regular American calendar, known historically from the 18th century as “Old Christmas” or “Appalachian Christmas” still in parts of the United States.
Seen in one way from mortal logic, the working out of God’s plan at Christmas may seem like the rough shaggy underside of a tapestry with the pattern non-discernible. Yet consider it from the spiritual side, from above as God grants us to see, then we can make out the design even if only dimly, working across all the genealogies of the Bible toward that little cave and the cries of the baby Who is God With Us. In iconography His manger-cradle and swaddling clothes prefigure the tomb and winding sheets he left behind in his great victory over death for us.
Today we commemorate on the first Sunday after Christmas, and on the third day of Christmas, St. Joseph the Betrothed, who went with the Theotokos and her baby son, our Lord and God and Savior, into Egypt, fleeing Herod, with the guidance of the angel. The Gospel reading today reminds us of this. According to Church Tradition, a thief protected the little caravan when his robber gang would have attacked them. Latter according to Tradition that thief remembered what he had glimpsed of the Christ-child, when Crucified years later, he looked next to him and saw Jesus on the Cross, and recognized in his bloodied fellow human the hidden God. “Remember me O Lord in Thy Kingdom,” he said. “Truly today you will be with Me in Paradise,” our Lord Jesus replied. St. Rakh, that wise thief, thus “stole Paradise” hymns of the Church tell us. He earned his place customarily on an outer door of the iconostasis in Russian Churches, and in our pre-communion prayer, for he helped show us the way of repentance with God’s grace.
Likewise today we commemorate the ancient Prophet King David on this day also, for he is an ancestor of Christ who also represents the wise ruler protecting the Church, even with all his serious sins, which with God’s grace and the help of the Prophet Nathan he met head on in severe heartfelt repentance from which came the Psalms. We also commemorate today the Apostle James the Just, the first Bishop and stepbrother of the Lord, who became an early leader helping to nurture the Church, and one of her earliest martyrs, following the lead in that sense of Protomartyr Deacon Stephen, whom we also commemorate today, who was stoned to death in the early days after Pentecost. For the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, and as a Deacon he was there to serve to the death. Holding the garments of his killer was Saul who would be transformed by an encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ and become later the Apostle Paul.
All the figures from Christian history we commemorate today are related to the Nativity by their roles as nurturers and protectors of the Church in the family of Jesus Christ. The Most Holy Theotokos in her purity and love of God and her willingness to bear Him in her womb, later also helped nurture His Church after His Ascension. St. Joseph stands in the role of foster father who even in old age protected the Theotokos and the Christ child, and with his son St. James as stepbrother to Jesus Christ and first Bishop-Presbyter, and Stephen the first Deacon-Martyr, all served key roles as family members in effect for our Lord in His Church. King David held the ancestral role of ruler and father of their country, Israel. Each of these roles is essential to nurturing and protecting our mission parish today and our lives as Christians, as nurturers and protectors however unworthily of our Church family and our community, of the baby Jesus in our hearts and in the Church and in our country. Our Lord warns us in the Gospel that we must not become entrapped in a merely materialistic sense of family. For His true family are those who do His will. His Church is our family. We find our place in Her as the Body of Christ, Who is the Divine Wisdom, and thus we find our salvation in Him together, as members of His family, of the New Israel that is the Orthodox Christian Church.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!