Why “To Shepherds”?

A Christmas Homily

You’ve just heard that there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Don’t let this mystery pass by unconsidered. The announcement of Our Lord’s birth doesn’t go first to the elites, the academics, the media, or the political class. Even the socially conscious, those working to aid the oppressed, and those striving for peace and justice—these folks may be wise and prudent in worldly affairs. But they often consider the wisdom of God to be foolish. If we possessed true wisdom, we would not be easily undone; nor would we think that Christmas is simply a children’s tale. True wisdom is from God and is God Himself. And with that wisdom, we can

understand that it was possible for flesh to be taken on by God without his being changed into flesh; … that he took to himself what he was not, while remaining what he was; and that he came to us [as a human] without ever departing from the Father; and that he continued to be what he is, while appearing to us as what we are; and that his divine power was confined in the body of an infant without being withdrawn from the whole mass of the universe. (St Augustine)

But this wisdom is too much for the elites, the educated, the philosophers, the talking heads, and the influencers. So, when word goes out, when the birth is made public, those who treated the royal family dishonorably are not alerted. They are not visited by angels.

For “the Son of God did not choose for his mother a rich or wealthy woman, but that blessed Virgin, whose soul was adorned with virtues…[who] had observed chastity in a way that was above all human nature. [S]he conceived Christ the Lord in her womb.” (St John Chrysostom) And so the woman who lived the discipline, the routine, of prayer and fasting; the woman who did not give into her impulses, and who did not think it her right to do as she wanted—this woman whom most overlooked and many despised and some ridiculed—she gave birth in the shabbiest place; in a stable, surrounded by farm animals.

And so “the Lord searched not for colleges filled with crowds of the wise, but a simple people who will not embellish or distort what they hear.” (St Ambrose) The angels do not desire the ambitious but humility; not the sophisticated but simplicity.

Why? Because anyone can marvel at the birth of a child. But God in our flesh is much more easily grasped by simple women and men—people of the earth that marvel in God’s creation and who prefer to take God at His Word. For faith invites us to see lying in the manger God’s material and embodied compassion. And so, we are invited to set aside our smarts and self-proclaimed wisdom, and instead to embrace “this Word that is come to pass” in the stable of Bethlehem.

Later, the elites will hear the Christmas news. And if we are willing to set aside our agenda of how we think Jesus ought to be and act, we will see Jesus for who He truly is—the Savior of the cosmos, God’s peace on earth, His goodwill toward all, and “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in.” So the first announcement goes to others.

Who hears the news first? Not the downtrodden, the homeless, the forgotten, and the ignored. These folks live simply by necessity. And they can certainly identify with Mary and Joseph since they are also marginalized. But no angels visit them. Instead, the news first goes to “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Why shepherds? Why leave the little town of Bethlehem and go into the country to night-workers? Why do angels single out these men and boys?

Because these night-watching shepherds point to those apostles and disciples who will be instructed by Christ, transformed by His Father, and given true wisdom by the Spirit. Exercising this spiritual wisdom, true shepherds proclaim not their truth, not a truth, but Truth Himself. And not just proclaim, but bestow. And not just bestow, but even plant Truth into our hearts so that we might believe against our notions of how the world ought to be, against our construct of how God ought to act, and against our impulse of how we ought to live.

So Christ reveals Himself to shepherds to show us that He is the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost, accompanies the weary, and comforts the lonely.

Christ reveals Himself to night-shepherds to urge us to be vigilant and diligent in seeking and follow Our Lord’s Word.

Christ reveals Himself to shepherds to teach us that the preaching of the illiterate and unschooled does us more good that the platitudes of the privileged.

And Christ reveals Himself to shepherds to demonstrate that He will appoint pastors and bishops—spiritual shepherds—who will oversee the flock and feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20.28)

And yet, when these shepherds hear the angels, they hesitate. Why? Perhaps we should say this to these shepherds, “Now listen, shepherds: You have heard what the angel said—the Lord Jesus Christ is born in your flesh and mine. He comes as a vulnerable Baby so that you can embrace Him. He comes as a Child so that you might mature into the full image and likeness of God. He comes wrapped in swaddling cloths so that your burial shroud might be unwound. He comes in a manger so that you might feed on Him at the altar. He comes on earth so that you might lift up your hearts to heaven. He comes in a stable, so that you might gain entrance into the heavenly mansions.

“So why do you delay? Why do you falter? Why do you dither and vacillate? You have been treated like VIPs – you are invited to worship Christ the King. You are permitted to see what only Mary and Joseph and some animals have seen. Angels have given you a golden invitation. The best song—a song repeated every week for thousands of years—that song has been first sung into your ears.

“Yet you stand still. Are you afraid that the Good Shepherd will not protect your sheep? Are you unsure of the way to the Way of Life? Do you fear that this might be some dream? In this way, you remind us of the Apostles 30 years later. Do you need to hear the angel say, “Why do you stand here gazing up into heaven?”

“Do not delay. Do not hesitate. Do not prevaricate. Do not overthink. Instead, do what we cannot do. Make haste to see the Child whom the angels proclaim. For then we will be told and reminded by other shepherds that Christ, the living Bread from heaven, has been laid not in a feedbox so that we, this night, might consume and be consumed by Love Himself.”

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 Word which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

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Feast of the Holy Spirit 2023

Today is the Feast of the Holy Spirit.

  • This is the day when the Holy Spirit wrote the 10 commandments on tables of stone after the children of Israel came to Mt Sinai.
  • This is the day when the Holy Spirit strengthened the spines of the Apostles so that they boldly and fearlessly proclaimed Christ—unafraid of jail, persecution, harassment, or death.
  • This is the day when the Holy Spirit reversed the Tower Babel—when He fused many different languages into one preaching, one faith, one baptism, one Gospel.
  • This is the day when the Holy Spirit burned away doubt and warmed the hearts of many.
  • This is the day when the Holy Spirit confirmed the faith of Christ in thousands from different races, ages and genders.
  • This is the day when the Spirit of God opened eyes to see Truth, to know Truth, to embrace Truth.

And this is the day when the Holy Spirit united 3000 different people into one Church; when the Holy Spirit made a home for the Father and the Son in each one of these 3000.

Think of that. 3000 baptized.

  • The same 3000 who cheered for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem 60 days before.
  • The same 3000 who quickly became disillusioned because Jesus was not the King Messiah they wanted.
  • The same 3000 who turned on Jesus and shouted for His crucifixion 6 days later.
  • The same 3000 who had heard rumors of Jesus’ resurrection but wouldn’t believe what they heard.

These 3000 were no different than you and me. They were

  • waiting for God to come through;
  • waiting to be rescued from own own self-serving passions;
  • waiting to see the world in a better, more real way;
  • waiting to be less anxious, less stressed, less afraid, less burdened

And the wait is worth it. Because when these women and men finished their 9 a.m. prayers,

  • They saw God in the tongues of fire,
  • They heard God from the mouth of the Apostles,
  • They felt God in the rushing mighty wind.

They saw, heard, and felt not just the idea of God, not the idea that there is a god. The 3000 felt, heard, and saw God Himself; His Spirit; His moving, active, life-giving, nurturing Person.

And the 3000 had, altogether, as one, the same response: How can that Spirit deliver God into me; so that I’m comforted, and supported, and made as fearless like those 12? How can I have that Love which is so alive in those Apostles? How can I get what they’ve got?

Peter’s reply: Be baptized. Then chrismated. And then follow us to the Eucharist, to the breaking of the bread.

Listen again to Peter’s reply, in different words: “Make your repentance real. Don’t just say you love God. Rub off your need to gratify yourself. Let self-love be replaced with the Love that God is. Love what the Lord says more than you love yourself.

“And so let the Holy Spirit graft and implant you in Christ Himself, in His flesh and in His bones. Partake of His Divine Nature so that He can transform you into an adopted child of God. Let the Spirit draw you more and more into Him, in the same way that He attracted you to experience and perceive the desire for Truth. Let God’s Spirit re-calibrate and realign your spirit, so that you now see clearly what is good, and beautiful, and true; and so that you live unafraid of anything.”

That reply is the foundation of the Church of the Apostles. Because it comes from the Apostles.

And the 3000 who believed it, who embraced it—they were the first “members” of this Apostolic Church, molded into one entity by the Spirit from folks of every different race, culture, and place.

That Church of the Apostles continues today. The gates of hell have not brought it down, or damaged it, or changed in into something else. That Church of the Apostles continues—because the basic reply of the Apostles remains: Be baptized; be confirmed in the faith of Jesus; and consume God’s own Body and Blood in Holy Communion.

Now, when we enter deeply into this common union; when we let go of our worries, doubts, and hangups; when we welcome the Promise not as a future hope but as a present reality; in other words, when we get out of the way of the Holy Spirit, and let Him carry us along in the Way which is Christ—then we begin to see that what matters most is the kindness, the compassion, and the love of Jesus that we get to live toward everyone, because the Spirit has given us the faith of Jesus. Not our faith; not faith in Jesus; not Jesus’ faith in us. The Holy Spirit gives us Jesus’ own faith, which displaces our hunches and supplants our vague notions.

Jesus’ own faith being what you actually believe—that is what the Holy Spirit gives and delivers.

And that faith of Jesus creates a boldness so that hope is not shaken, and charity does not grow cold. In turn,

our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a Truth whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit; it remains unshaken by chains and imprisonment, exile and hunger, fire and ravening beasts, and the most refined tortures ever devised by brutal persecutors. Throughout the world women no less than men, tender girls as well as boys, give their life’s blood in the struggle for this faith. It is a faith that drives out devils, heals the sick and raises the dead. (St Leo)

That’s the faith the 3000 saw and wanted; what they were looking for; and what they received when they were baptized. “Their lukewarm hearts were fired by the light of faith and began to burn within them.”

And we have received the same faith of Jesus.

For like the 3000, we have been given the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and fortitude, of knowledge and piety, and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord—that is, we now have the awe-inspiring Spirit that lets us see how marvelous our Lord truly has been and continues to be; to whom, with the Father and His only-begotten Son, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: throughout all ages of ages.

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The Old Man is Ready

Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Luke 2.22-32

The old man was not dying. But he was old. And he was realistic. And so he lived as St Benedict described: Simeon desired eternal life with all spiritual longing, and so he kept death daily before his eyes. Not because he was morbid or depressed, but because he longed to see God. And how else does one see God, how else does one partake fully of the Divine Nature, how else do we attain the joy of our salvation unless we take the passageway through the grave? For it has been converted by Our Lord Himself from the gateway to Hades into the gateway to Heaven. In fact, by His resurrection Christ refashioned the tomb to be the gate of the Lord through which the righteous ascend to be seated in heavenly places.

Don’t be surprised, then, if old St Simeon had this prayer always on his lips and in his heart:

I shall not die but live / and declare the works of the Lord.
The Lord hath chastened and corrected me / but he hath not given me over unto death.

At least, not the death that is hopeless. Not the death that goes nowhere, or that drives us further from our Father. Rather, the Lord gives us over to abundant life, which is obtained after death.

Where do you go, then; where do you live, when all you want to do is see God? And where do you go, where do you live, while you’re waiting in hope, in anticipation, in expectation, in pious and heart-felt longing to attain the fullness of your humanity; the reason you were made—to have intimate communion with God, to see God?

Listen to the Psalmist: “We wait for thy loving-kindness, O God / in the midst of thy temple.”

That’s where Simeon is. In the midst of the Lord’s temple. Waiting for His loving-kindness. Waiting in hope while he prays, “I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him / in His word is my trust.” And so trusting, with godly faith, confident that the Lord will make good on His word, Simeon sits in the temple day by day, expecting the consolation of Israel, because he was promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

The old man waits. And yet the old man also does not turn over a thousand rocks, or look into a thousand eyes, or check out a thousand signs and omens, trying to figure out if this one is the one; or if that event or this moment announces the end of his waiting. The old man waits patiently; and so he waits knowing that when the Lord appears, it will be clear. Crystal clear. Because an inner-light, not the light of intuition but the light of life, will enlighten his mind and strengthen his conviction. And so Simeon dutifully waits, not wasting his time trying to figure out when or how; and not caught up in things that don’t edify, or things that distract, or things that he can’t take with him. Simeon passes his time in prayer, and in storing up heavenly treasures by practicing joyfulness, kindness, and love which refused to control another.

The old man waits patiently, faithfully, trustingly for the Lord, who is going to come suddenly into His temple. Suddenly, not like in a rush, with a flourish, out of breath. But suddenly, as in unexpectedly, at a time you least expect and in a manner that seems unlikely. “The one whom you seek, whom you delight in—behold, He shall come, says the Lord of hosts.”

Simeon does not wait in vain. And as soon as he sees the young woman, the one whom he saw grow from a child into a Bride, from faith to faith, into a Lady, into a Queen—when Simeon sees this woman whom he has loved like a father; when he sees her with her husband, and the radiant Child in her arms—then he knows that his wait is over; that he is now looking at and holding in his arms, the Lord’s salvation, the Lord’s grace, the Lord God Himself.

And now Simeon is ready to die. For to live is Christ, but to die is gain. And Simeon wishes to gain all that he’s awaited; all that he’s now seen. It’s not a death wish. It is rather the realization that nothing else in this life compares with the “light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of the Lord’s people, Israel.”

For Simeon reasons, quite rightly, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” And he asks you, “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” In fact, “who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord? who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord?”

Having seen the Lord’s Christ, then, what is there worth seeing? And why not spend time in joyous conversation to His Father, to whom His Spirit leads you?

And so, the old man is ready to die. Or to be precise, Simeon is ready to depart in peace. He’s ready to go through that passageway of death and the grave in order to enter the realm where peace is palpable, where joy is intensely tangible, and where you can talk to Love Himself.

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I’ve described Simeon and his waiting and his reward because he shows us how we can respond every time we behold the Lord’s Christ on the altar, every time we get to carry Him not in our arms but in our heart, every time we get to taste the Lord Himself—His flesh mingled with our flesh, His blood mixed with our blood—every time we get to taste and see that the Lord is what goodness is. With the old man, we can say, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

For that salvation, that seeing the Lord with other eyes—that is why we come into this temple. We wait in the midst of this temple, just like Simeon, waiting faithfully for the Lord’s loving-kindness, waiting to move forward from the darkening shadows, from the shade this life casts, into the calming brightness and radiance of the Lord’s glory.

St Michael Orthodox Christian Church, Whittier CA
2 February 2023

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Jesus, Us, & the Father’s Business

Sunday after the Epiphany
Luke 2.42-52

Perhaps you could blame the Holy Mother for losing the Son of God. But Jesus was not lost. Neither was He trying to get some alone time away from family. He wasn’t peopled-out. He wasn’t looking to impress priests and rabbis. He wasn’t stretching His wings. He wasn’t sight-seeing. And He wasn’t trying to embarrass or show-up His parents.

So why was Jesus missing? Why were Mary and Joseph frantically searching for this precocious, 12-year-old, Son of God?

What does Jesus Himself say? He was about His Fathers’ business.

Too often we think the Fathers’ business is about being busy – busy proclaiming or witnessing; busy helping others; busy teaching or setting others straight.

Jesus didn’t go into the temple looking for a good conversation, trying to impress or win over the men who, 20 years later, would lead the shouts, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

To be sure, Jesus was in the place of sacrifice, talking to men who sacrificed, sitting in the middle like the sacrificial lamb He would be for the world. But that’s not why Jesus went into the temple.

He went into the temple to be with His Father. To stand in His Father’s presence. To commune in mind and spirit with His Father.

That’s the Father’s business. Not learning or teaching. Not hearing the preaching. We don’t come to Mass to be inspired or to be taught. The Father’s business is that we stand with the angels and saints, facing the Lord, praying to Him, basking in His love, knowing that we are in the safest place in the universe, the safest place of all time.

That’s why we come into this holy temple. To be with God our Father. To let Him be to present to us, as we present ourselves to Him.

From that we gain strength. In standing here, hope becomes real and faith comes alive. As we stand in front of God, we see more clearly what matters most; and how love—not loving or getting loved, but the One who is Love—how love looks, and it’s true power.

The true power of God’s love for us is His willingness to sit with us during our scariest days, and then lay aside everything He is so that we can receive His Life in exchange for death, His forgiveness in exchange for our sin, His compassion in exchange for our selfishness, His humility in exchange for our pride, and His strength in place of our weakness.

It’s all here. In fact, it’s only here. For while God is everywhere, He is most surely, most graciously, most truly located here for you and me, to receive into the depths of our souls. Here, and only here, is where we taste and see that the Lord is what good is. And what love is. And what hope is.

The Father’s business is to lay aside all earthly cares, so that we can stand here, present to our Father, present with God the Father.

And that’s a sacrifice. It begins in sacrifices, it’s soaked in sacrifice, and it is what sacrifice is.

The Father’s business begins in sacrifice because living with less means trusting that Our Lord provides. Not just food and the stuff we need, but that the Lord provides especially the most meaningful stuff—the pledge, the oath, the promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us, no matter how awful things look; and most especially as we pass through the grave to the fullness of the life to come.

The Father’s business begins in sacrifice, asking us to be willing to sacrifice, so that we learn, with baby steps, how to trust.

And the Father’s business is soaked in sacrifice. Chiefly, the sacrifice of His Son. The sacrifice Christ Jesus makes by being tempted like us in every respect so that it looks like the Son of God, who knew no sin, becomes sin for us. Not that He sins, not simply that He takes on and battles our sins; but that He suffers our sins to death in His own body. Freely. Without any coercion.

Jesus sacrifices Himself to the point that He goes through our absolute worst day so that we might live within His never-ending day. That’s the Father’s business. A business that the 12-year-old Jesus is contemplating before debating. For on the third day Mary and Joseph find Jesus sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and speaking with them. But that’s the third day. The other two days, Jesus is with His Father, considering and conversing about the sacrifices He will love to do for us, and ultimately the sacrifice of being overcome with death in order to overwhelm death.

You see, hell comes for Jesus. Hell takes His body. But hell is destroyed as it tastes His flesh, just as we are enlivened when we taste that same flesh. What is bitter for Him is sweet for us. What kills death brings us to life.

A 12-year-old marveling, reflecting on, contemplating the magnitude of this sacrifice—that’s why Jesus goes in the temple. And He stays there three days to try out and get a feel for the three days of His greatest sacrifice.

Yet the sacrifice is not all about Jesus. You just heard, moments ago, that St Paul said, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice.” How? Not by letting everything around you shape your tastes, your desires, your hopes, your fears. Not by being pressed into this mold. Instead, we sacrifice when we live completely for others through Christ; when we live as Christ lived – unafraid and undisturbed and unperturbed because we’re living within Christ’s sacrifice—the sacrifice that shows the meaninglessness of everything that calls for our attention, and also shows us the reality of real living in God’s presence.

This Father’s business—it’s not easy to describe, because it’s not anything like business as usual. This Father’s business is the business of living within the freedom of obedience, and the playground of trust, and the unlimited lavishness of grace.

As you hear Paul say that we need to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind,” you can also hear right after that, “Let this mind be in you, which was in Christ Jesus.” Even when He was 12. When He lived for God’s house. For the temple. For the joy of doing the Father’s business.

That joy—that’s the “living” part in “living sacrifice.” And that joy is both what drew the boy Jesus to be with His Father in the temple, and what Mary pondered as they headed back home to Nazareth.

And it’s that same joy that we need to seek daily in this place where the Father’s business happens. How does the Psalmist say it? What is our prayer?

One thing have I desired of the Lord, which I will require; even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to visit his temple.

For in the temple, you will find Our Lord Jesus being about His Father’s business.

Through the prayers of the Holy Mother of God and of all the saints, may God be merciful to us and bless us; now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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The Lesson of the Magi

The episode about the Magi visiting the infant God in our flesh is more about us, than the songs of the angels and the visit of the shepherds that we heard on Christmas day. St Gregory reminds us that the angels announced Christ to Jewish shepherds, but now we see men like us—non-Jews, coming from diverse backgrounds, walking by faith, pinning hopes to signs and sacraments, journeying to meet God where He is.

And look at how much these Magi are like us! They make life-changing moves, which friends and family question. They sound like Utopian dreamers, more interested in life with God than life on earth. And they talk about life as a journey in order to walk with God, and be with God, and talk with God.

And they’re more like us than we want to admit. For these Magi know that in order to change the world it is necessary to have power. Yet they mistake the power of governments and movements as the place of power, rather than Christ Jesus, whom God anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power so that Christ is the power of God, and the wisdom of God. So not protests or demonstrations, not elections or policy makers, not working to make a difference with global concerns—none of these things are true power. True power is the gospel of Christ: for the Gospel He is, is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who has faith.

But like the Magi, we tend to get caught up in the power that everyone else talks about. And so these men of faith follow the wrong path, and steer themselves in the wrong direction; because they thought that a powerful child would be nowhere else but in a King’s palace. What they had to learn—and what we must never forget—is that humility, God in diapers, the Son of God in a rude cave, and above all else, this Child on the cross is foolishness to those caught up in speaking truth to power; but to us who are being saved these easily overlooked marks of humility and humiliation are the true power of God. For Christ comes into the world to fill His cross with the power that does more than empower the poor and disenfranchised—it empties tombs and lets us sit with God our Father in heavenly places!

At first, the Magi lost their way because they thought their journey was about seeking and partaking in new politics, a new world order, a new kingdom of God on earth. It is about that, but not like we tend to think. Only when we, with the Magi, see that the journey is an inner pilgrimage, something that changes us within our soul—only then do we see life differently. Only then do we see Life Himself.

So the Magi had to change their ideas about power. They had to turn away from powerful men and women, and instead seek the Life that empower you, me, and all humanity. The Magi had to stop looking at the trappings of power, and begin to see Christ, the Life of all the living; the One who says, apart from Me, you can do nothing; and unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you have no life in you.

These Magi truly hungered and thirsted after justice—and godliness, peace, meaning, truth—everything that is wrapped up in the word “righteousness.” They truly wanted to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; so that they could be renewed and reinvigorated to live now, toward the world to come. And so they left home and family, searching diligently for the newborn King, the Child they could lavish with not just expensive gifts but with heartfelt adoration.

What do these Magi teach us, then? To seek this King, we need to set off on a journey like theirs.

Deep within themselves they felt prompted to go in search of the true justice that can only come from God, and they wanted to serve this King, to fall prostrate at his feet and so play their part in the renewal of the world. They were among those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” This hunger and thirst spurred them on in their pilgrimage—they became pilgrims in search of the justice that they expected from God, intending to devote themselves to its service. (Benedict XVI, 2005)

In the same way, deep within our soul, where hope is palpable, where faith comes alive—in our soul we need to resolve to lay aside all earthly cares so that we can be true pilgrims who search for Life Himself, the wisdom and power of God, the vulnerable infant Jesus, the Jesus who comes down to sit with us in our darkest moments, the Jesus who speaks us into warmth and peace, and the Jesus on the cross who shows us that real power lies in living without fear because the tomb and the grave no longer control or dominate us.

That’s the example of these Magi.

They changed their ideas about power, about God and about man, and in so doing, they also changed themselves. Now they were able to see that God’s power is not like that of the powerful of this world. God’s ways are not as we imagine them or as we might wish them to be.

God does not enter into competition with earthly powers in this world. He does not marshal his divisions alongside other divisions. God did not send 12 legions of angels to assist Jesus in the Garden of Olives. He contrasts the noisy and ostentatious power of this world with the defenseless power of love, which succumbs to death on the Cross and dies ever anew throughout history; yet it is this same love which constitutes the new divine intervention that opposes injustice and ushers in the Kingdom of God. (Benedict XVI, 2005)

God is different—this is what the Maji come to believe. God is different—that is also what we are invited to see.

God is more different than we imagine Him; He is more different how we shape Him to be in our own minds. God is different because only God becomes who we truly are, especially in those moments when we hate ourselves. God becomes us, even then, so that we might be filled with a love that chases away self-loathing, anxiety, fear, and the need to control. God in Christ carries us, so that we now can carry Him just as the Holy Mother carried Him—in her heart as well as in her arms.

The Magi show us how different God is as they see Him nestling up to His mother, cooing at His St Joseph, unafraid and yet unable to scare. This different God now means that they themselves must now become different. They must learn God’s ways.

What saves the world is not policies or programs or even lifestyle changes. These things come about as a result—only after we adore and pin our hopes to the Christ Child in the manger. For what alone saves the world is a return to the living God, our Creator, who is the pledge of our freedom, and the sacrament of what is really good and true. “True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love.” (Benedict XVI 2005) And there is nothing else that can ever save us except the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord; to whom, with His Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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Christ Mass at Midnight 2022

This year’s midnight Mass begins at 11 p.m. Those who wish to join in the liturgy and hymns are encouraged to use a digital device (tablet, iPad, Kindle) since the lights will be turned very low. Candles to hold in the hand will also be provided.

Below are the liturgy and hymn selections for the midnight Mass.

Below are the liturgy and hymn selections for the midnight Mass.

  • SAH 55 – O Come, All Ye Faithful (procession)
  • SAH 59 – The First Nowell (offertory)
  • SAH 51 – Hark the Herald Angels Sing (communion)
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (communion)
  • Silent Night (exit)

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The Gift of Authority

Our Lord’s grace, His gifts to us for our well-being, His compassion and goodness—all of that includes His authority. That’s part of the daily bread that we petition from Our Father. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we ask that our Father exercise His authority, using others, for our good. And when we implore Him to lead us not into temptation, we ask Him to lead us—by His strong arm, making use of various leaders. And when we beg Our Father to deliver us from evil, we ask Him to use whatever means and agencies are necessary to snatch us from the jaws of evil, and sometimes even our own self-destructive ways. To use authority to turn evil to good—that’s part of the Lord’s grace, His gift, His compassion, His love.

And today’s Gospel shows us how He does it. It gives us a clear look at how Our Lord exercises His authority. And how our leaders are to be His servants for our good, for our welfare. Using compassion. Measured words. Truth. Humility. And true justice which seeks both to correct the wrong and protect the most vulnerable.

How does Our Lord do this? What example does He set? How does He exercise His authority?

Consider the scene of our Lord’s coronation and enthronement. We see that

Forgiveness tamps down rage
Compassion overwhelms insult
Truth outshines indecisiveness
Love blunts hatred and converts indifference
Humility outlasts arrogance
The poor man outlives the greedy
The betrayed embraces the traitor
Weakness defeats strength

These are not the tools of rage politics. These are not the tactics of extremists who seek to squeeze the middle using anger and malice and violent speech. But these are the methods of Christ the King—methods He enjoins us to employ in our relationships and dealings.

Anger, forcing the agenda, demonizing your opponents, incentivizing meanness, and setting yourself up as the only true patriot—these will win in the short-term, but in the end they are always destructive. For this ethos and its values are inimical to God’s way, undermine Christ’s cross, and oppose the Spirit of unity and truth.

As He hangs on the cross, Our Lord refuses to see His opponents as enemies. For He wrestles then, and always, not with flesh and blood. He suffers for His opponents well as His fleeting friends. He pleads the Father’s forgiveness for those who are killing Him. Our Lord wrestles not with these men. He wrestles with the Deceiver, the Accuser, the Adversary and his minions—Satan and his devils who want to suck us into hell.

And so He employs not the weapons of division, but the strength of His mercy by which He will reconcile and return to Himself, and to His embrace, every living thing which He created.

Notice: Our Lord makes peace not by shedding the blood of others, but by shedding His own blood; not by sacrificing the lives of others, but by sacrificing His own life; not by making the vulnerable and those with no voice to pay the price, but by ransoming Himself.

In this way, Our Lord seeks much more than relief from economic distress, or bad policies, or corrupting ways. Our Lord’s way—His goal—is to deliver us from all of the powers of darkness and then translate us into the kingdom of the Son of His love.

The coming of that kingdom is announced by the sign that hangs over His head. The dead one on the cross—He is the King of the cosmos. The man oppressed, tortured, stricken, smitten by God and afflicted—this man of sorrows because He endures our every sorrow—He is our Emperor and Monarch, just as His clothing declares.

We do well, then, not merely to hear about this King, or to take comfort for a few moments in this story, or to wish others would hear these words. We do well when we actually imitate and follow this King—by taking up our cross daily. Which means, by sacrificing our notions, seeing the good in our opponents, living true humility by refusing to control outcomes, and by seeking real justice with the actual forgiveness that tamps down rage, with the heartfelt compassion that meets insult, and with the love He graciously gives us at this altar—His sacrifice which is able to blunt our hatred and convert our indifference.

As we follow and imitate this King, then the truth Our Lord speaks to Pilate may begin to sink down into our being: we are children of a King whose kingdom is not of this world, whose servants do not fight for material advantage, whose kingdom is not from here. And for that reason we need to strive, each one of us, to have compassion for one another, to love as brothers, to be tenderhearted and courteous, not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this: that you may inherit a blessing—through Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, to whom belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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Getting Comfortable with Silence

Everyone in black. Precise movements. Dignity by both clergy and the people present. All the women in hats (of one sort or another). No one looking at a phone. Everyone dressed ready to meet the monarch. No one entering in a rush. Attentive listening to the sung words. No whispered small-talk and no fidgeting.

Those are my impressions from watching the funeral services for Queen Elizabeth II. It formed, in my mind, a decorous reception of and means toward worship. No doubt, this resonates with the culture of my Midwestern childhood—when folks ‘dressed’ for church and ‘dignified’ worship had a certain look. Those looks can be different in other cultures and generations. But that was, for me, how church was done back there, back then.

However, what really struck me was the silence. The silence in transition moments (from singing to speaking, or vice versa), the silence during some of the movements, the silence in the midst of reverential speaking, singing, and movement. And most of all, the two minutes of silence observed not only in Westminster Abbey, but also by those viewing outside the Abbey—and even in other countries. Reuters News headlined the “deafening sound of silence to honour Queen Elizabeth.”

The power and necessity of silence is not cultural or generational. It is especially biblical. “Be still,” says the Lord God. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 45.11). Only when we are still and silent, then, can we truly begin to know God, to pray, and to consider the Lord’s mercy. Especially in the midst of death. For, truly, what can we say when a person has died. We can only remain still and wait the Lord’s kindness in the midst of tears, His loving embrace, and His comforting word (even if it is a “still small voice” [1 Kng 19.12]).

Perhaps that’s why silence—specifically, a moment of silence—is associated with respect for the dead. It’s not so much about honoring the dead person. This practice lets us “both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3.26).

Silence is an increasing challenge for generation and our culture. We are addicted to distraction. Which explains why we have a hard time being still; and why silence—even during Mass—disturbs us.

Most pointedly, “we’re addicted to disturbance. We love to be disturbed. And if we haven’t been disturbed for the last 20 seconds, we find something to disturb us. Part of the soul pain and frustration, and even aggression, that that experience can release in people is an indication that, fundamentally, we’re constructed for a different mode of interacting with the world” (Bp Erik Varden).

The mode of interacting that we’re constructed for is not constant, non-stop interacting. We’re constructed and designed, by Our Lord God, to listen, think, contemplate, ponder, meditate, pray—all of which requires silence. Not total silence all the time, but at least some times of silence that are deliberate, unplugged, with no music (even church music) or sounds.

The Queen’s funeral gave millions a taste of elongated silence. A silence which we should cultivate, perhaps little by little, so that we might actually begin to hear God. Remember: we get to know God, and rejoice in His uplifting love, when we are still.

– Fr John W. Fenton

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O Give Thanks

On the day the temple in Jerusalem was dedicated, when King Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven to consume the innumerable sheep and oxen offered in sacrifice, and then the glory of the Lord filled the entire house of the Lord—so much so that the priests could not enter. (2 Chrn 5 & 7) But they were not afraid. They were overwhelmed. Because, after Solomon’s prayer of dedication, after the King dedicated the Lord’s house—then everyone knew that the Lord’s glory was not terrifying. Rather, it was merciful. The holy place radiated a mercy so kind and gracious, so good and benevolent, that the people prostrated in reverence because they knew, deep down, that the Lord was drawing them into Him.

Gratitude caused them to fall to their knees and cover their faces. The Lord determined to come into the house they built, and inhabit their temple, and promise always to hear and to help. And so gratitude inspired their worship.  Not fear that He might crush them; or the obligation to obey; or a sense of fair play—but gratitude. Heart-felt appreciation. Thankfulness.

The Lord’s love moves Him to reach out to us, even when we pull back from Him. The Lord never pushes us away, even when we think little of Him. And the Lord will always lower Himself to us, even when we think He owes us a favor. His compassion for you—that evokes true thanksgiving.

Now those who enter the Lord’s house can say: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28.17) Because when the Lord descends onto this altar, when His Spirit enables us to see that Christ is in our midst—then He lifts up our hearts, He embraces us and draws us into His own self, and He invites us to sit with Him in His heavenly place.

That’s the Lord’s mercy. Not pity, but unending empathy, and overabundant generosity, and limitless benevolence.

That’s what the healed Samaritan perceived. He didn’t just see that he was healed or that Christ had completely turned his life around. The other nine knew that much. But the Samaritan saw more. He believed that the Lord Jesus was making him whole so that he could stand, with God, alongside anyone else. And so, he was grateful. “With a loud voice he glorified God, and fell down on his face and Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.”

Groveling gives way to joy. Heartfelt love displaces fear. Love expands the sense of duty. And grace satisfies and fulfills all hope.

Compared to the Samaritan, we have been given a great deal! We have more than enough! And not just material things, but much more than that. We get to have Christ Jesus, our Lord and God, make His home in our own bodies and souls. By the gifts and grace of the Spirit, we commune with God, and partake more and more of His love. So even if you are poor according to others, you are rich! For we have the fullness of God!

Whenever we empty our souls by confessing our sins, He fills them with the riches of His righteousness. Every time we confess our sins to the priest, our Lord is faithful and just to give us generously His absolution. Remember: this is the same Lord who chooses the weak of this world to shame and astound those who think they are mighty. He used a fisherman named Peter to begin the eventual conquest of more than one Empire. So, certainly, He can raise us up.

Thanks to Our Lord’s mercy, thanks to His grace, we get to give thanks. But it’s not really a repayment, is it? For what can we really give to the Lord for all the goods that He has given to us? How can we repay Him for our life, our food, our ability to approach Him, and our hope in the world to come?

Our Lord does not create, or help, or save us because He wants to be rewarded. He reaches out regardless of our impiety and lack of devotion to Him. He searches for us when we do not look for Him. He finds, redeems, and liberates us from the clutches of the devil and our own oppressive addicting passions. He draws us to Himself in order to purify us by Christ’s faith, which then releases us.

But if we choose to go our own way—if we kick against the goads and push aside Our Lord’s attempts to embrace us—He will not fight us. He will not restrain those who won’t have Him, and who do not wish to be cleaned by His love. Our Lord lets haters revile, mock, and accuse Him of not caring. But this does not change Christ’s attitude toward them. Or do we not see that, when these curses are uttered, they fade away like so much noise; but the Lord’s blessing and mercy lives forever?

In truth we give Our Lord only what He has first given us. And we can give Him what He asks—that we receive, with a sincere and true heart, His salvation offered in the Holy Eucharist. He gives Himself. And we give thanks by receiving, here together, the gift of Himself at this holy altar.

That is why Metropolitan PHILIP consecrated this altar, and dedicated this church 32 years ago. Now we, and those who follow, can give thanks by gathering in this sanctified space within the loving embrace of our holy mother the Church. She is our strength so that we may be strong. She warms us when our faith grows cold, and when our hope wavers. She alone makes us wise by feeding us with divine Wisdom

Let us love our Lord God by loving His Church. He is our Father, she is our Mother, and we are their children. The Church is weaker whenever one of us is absent; and she is unable to help us when we are distracted by other pleasures. So, if we say, “I believe in God the Father,” then we shouldn’t neglect our Mother.

This is the place, then, where we get to give thanks to Our Lord God—by confessing our frailty, imploring his mercy, and then receiving the gift of His flesh and blood. In truth, the Lord’s mercy anticipates us. He is good enough not only to guard us and restore us. He is also good enough to increase His gifts or benefits, which come both from His kindness and, even more so, from His own being. For Our Lord is the only One who truly gives us Himself; Who, with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns: world without end.

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Dormition or Assumption?

The Feast has two different names. It’s the same feast, just with two different names. Some call it “The Dormition of the Theotokos” and some call it “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Why the two names? Is there are difference? Is one better or more correct than the other?

The word “dormition” means “falling asleep.” Specifically, it denotes the death or passing away of the Holy Mother of God. With that word, then, we confess that the Virgin Mary truly died, as did her Divine Son; and then was raised from the dead as Christ raised the little girl when He said, “The child is not dead, but sleeping.”

The word “assumption” refers Mary being taken up, in her body, into heaven. This is similar to the ascension of her Divine Son. Although he ascended by His own power, the Holy Mother was aided in her going up—just as the prophet Elijah went up to heaven, not under his own power but in a ‘fiery chariot.’

These two words, then, focus on two different aspects of this gracious act of the Son for His Mother. She was raised from the dead (dormition), and she was raised in her body (assumption) to be seated “in heavenly places.” (See Ephesians 2.4-7)

In no instance does the Orthodox Church teach that the Blessed Virgin did not die. Like her Son, she tasted or experienced death. But also like Him, her body was glorified and transformed so that she might be with Him, at His side.

Our Lady did not endure an extended rest in the grave. According to St John of Damascus, after she fell asleep in the Lord, Mary’s body was buried in a coffin in Gethsemane

where for three days the singing of the angelic choirs persevered relentlessly. After the third day, those songs having ceased, the attending apostles opened the coffin at the request of Thomas, who was the only one who had been away from them, and who, on the third day, wanted to venerate the body that had [given birth to] God. But … they found only the funeral dresses put there, from which an ineffable perfume emanated that penetrated them, and they closed the coffin. Overwhelmed … here is the only thing they could conclude: the one who in his own person deigned to incarnate in her and become a man, God the Word, the Lord of glory, and who kept her mother’s virginity intact after his birth, had still wanted, after his departure from below, to honor this virgin and immaculate body with the privilege of incorruptibility; and with a translation prior to the common and universal resurrection.

Source

Therefore, the Lord honored His Mother by raising her on the third day, and then transporting her in her glorified body to heaven.

Yet, the Dormition or Assumption is not just about Mary. She enters heaven to show us that our mortal bodies, made of the same earth, can also be joined to heaven; that the lowest person can sit with God; that her prayer to be exalted by humility has been answered. For the woman was despised by her own kin, nearly disowned by her own spouse, and closeted by so many Christians. Yet in the Assumption, she exalted and literally lifted up to be what she always was: the best of all humanity.

-Fr John

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