The Feast of the Holy Innocents ~ The Rev. Dcn. Scott Brown, OPI

Matthew 2:13-18 New International Version (NIV)

The Escape to Egypt

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”[a]

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”[b]

Imagine you are a parent, enjoying the toddler years, or as we know them today, the terrible twos,  when suddenly your front door is blown open and a soldier slaughters your baby. Your baby was sentenced to death by a tyrannical ruler who is obviously not in his right mind.

To many Christians, King Herod is the bloodthirsty villain of the Bible, the jealous despot who ordered the slaughter of newborn babies throughout his kingdom following the birth of Jesus Christ. To his subjects, he was Herod the Great, the paranoid tyrant who imposed oppressive taxes to fund his massive building projects, and who crushed all opposition. And to his Roman masters, he was little more than a reliably loyal—and wealthy—puppet-king.

Throughout history, opinions of Herod the Great have not been…well, great. Herod was a client king, which means he was subordinate to a larger ruling government. In Herod’s case, that government was Republican Rome. Indeed, Herod wouldn’t have been king of Judea at all had it not been for the Romans: rather than inherit the throne as kings usually do, Herod was declared king by the Roman senate, with the understanding that he would lead Judea in a decidedly pro-Roman direction. With the help of the Romans, Herod was able to put down Antigonus’s revolt. With Phasael (his older brother and Governor of Jerusalem) and Hyrcanus (king of Judea) both killed in the strife, this left Herod as the sole claimant to the throne of Judea. The Romans assented, and Herod claimed the title “basileus,” or king, for himself in 36 BCE.

Though the Romans identified Herod as “King of the Jews,” there is some doubt as to the sincerity of Herod’s faith. By blood, he was an Edomite, an Arabic group who had only recently converted to Judaism. Herod’s frequent clashes with the Sanhedrin, not to mention the observant Pharisees and Sadducees who were his subjects, as well as his pro-Roman attitudes and tolerance of other religions, have led some to allege that Herod was not sincerely Jewish.

Look at what is happening in our country today. We as a country have forgotten how to love one another, we have forgotten how to feed the hungry, how to clothe the naked, and how to shelter the homeless. We are separating children from their parents, locking them up in what are essentially prisons and some of them are even dying in them. These children are the innocents today,  just as the murdered babies were in Herod’s time. King Herod was trying to protect his title of King of the Jews by attempting to kill the Son of God. Herod’s ego activated his paranoia, which in turn caused him to go on a murder spree, killing thousands of innocent children.

Possibly the same could be said for our nation and our leaders now. We are not feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, nor are we sheltering the homeless, all because of our (and our elected leaders’) huge egos. In John chapter 13 Jesus gave us one commandment:

33 Little children, I am with you only a little while longer. You will look for Me, and as I said to the Jews, so now I say to you: ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another. 35By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”…

We as a nation, we as a people, and we as a world. need to love one another so that all will know that we are His disciples. This wasn’t a suggestion from our Lord – it was a commandment. A commandment given not to just Americans, Europeans, Mexicans, or Indians, but to everyone of all ethnicities, colors and creeds. Closing borders to the hungry and oppressed, is not the way of our Lord. Open our borders, open our hearts, open our minds and obey our Lord’s commandment to love one another and stop murdering innocents as Herod did. Stop feeding the egos of the modern-day King Herods, and obey the commandment Jesus left for us.

Heavenly Father in this season of giving and sharing, open our hearts and minds, take away our egos so that we can love one another. Keep our hearts open so that others will know we are Your disciples by our actions and words.  Amen.

The Big Picture: The Feast of St. John ~ The Rev. Dcn. Scott Brown, OPI

 

1 John 1:1-4 New International Version (NIV)

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our[a] joy complete.

What is the history of John the disciple of Jesus?

To learn the history of John, the disciple of Jesus, we begin with his life before he met Jesus. John, his brother James, Peter, and Andrew were all partners in the fishing business before they became disciples of Jesus. John was the son of Zebedee who was also a fisherman in Galilee. John’s mother’s name was Salome and some say that Salome was the sister of Jesus’ mother, Mary. John owned a home in Jerusalem. Shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, John moved to Ephesus.

John pastored a church in Ephesus. He communicated with other churches in the area as stated in the book of Revelation. He advised and counseled many people who would later become believers in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

By order of the Roman Emperor, Domitian, John was exiled to the island, Patmos. Domitian ordered his exile because he saw John as a threat to his rule. However, his popularity and influence in the Christian community continued through correspondence with all the churches. John wrote the book of Revelation during his exile. When he was released from exile, he returned to Ephesus. John founded and built churches all through Asia until he was old, and died the sixty-eighth year after our Lord’s passion, peacefully in Ephesus.

During his life, John wrote the book of John and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd book of John and the book of Revelation. Near the end of his life, it is said that he constantly repeated the phrase, “Little children, love one another!” He did that because he believed it was the Lord’s most important commandment.

It is easy for us to get so caught up in the details of our work that we lose sight of the big picture.

So it’s very helpful that the Apostle John, in these first four verses, gives us the big picture of God’s purpose, from eternity past to eternity future.

1: The eternal pre-existence of God’s Son

That which was from the beginning” (v. 1) What beginning is John referring to? John means the beginning of all things; the ultimate beginning before time and space existed.  The Eternal Son of God enjoyed fellowship with the Father before the creation of the universe and before He appeared on earth as a man.  Jesus Christ, the focus of this epistle, was eternally existent as the Son of God. He is Alpha and omega! Before Abraham was, Jesus said “I am!” He is the One who created time, space, matter, and humanity, and therefore He rules over all!

2: The historical revelation of God’s Son.

“The life appeared” (v. 2) What an amazing turnabout: the Eternal entered time, and He appeared to human beings. The Word became flesh and therefore presented Himself to His creatures. This manifestation did not happen in merely a dream or a vision, as other religious figures supposedly appeared. No. God’s Son was perceived and recorded by three senses: hearing, sight, and touch: “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched.”

Now think about that. If the people of Jesus’ day would have just heard His voice, that would have been impressive, right? But to have heard the Son of God was not enough, for people had heard God’s voice in the OT. Now, to have seen the son of God was even more compelling, though some prophets in the OT also had visions of the pre-incarnate Son of God, or as He was called, the “Angel of the Lord.” But… to have touched the Eternal Son of God, well, that was something else! This was conclusive proof that indeed, the Eternal Son of God did become flesh, and really did live among us!

3: The apostolic proclamation of God’s Son.

“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard” (v. 3) The historical revelation of God’s Son appearing in time and space was given to the few apostles for the sake of the many. They were charged with declaring Him and the Gospel message to the world. John writes that the manifestation given “to us” (v. 2) became a proclamation declared “to you” (v. 3). Note that this charge involved both a testimony (2) and a proclamation (2, 3). Both words imply an authority, but of differing kinds.

A testimony has the authority of an eyewitness; one must be an eyewitness before he is competent to bear witness. True witnesses speak of what they have personally seen and heard; they do not speak of second-hand information.

But a proclamation indicates the authority of one who has received a commission. It speaks of a higher authority who has given you the charge to speak and herald a message for them. This is what Jesus gave His apostles in Luke 9:2 and what Paul knew he was charged with, in Acts 28:31, namely, to proclaim the Kingdom of God… and they did so with authority.

And these two aspects, of being eyewitness testifiers and apostolic proclaimers of the Lord Jesus Christ, are what drives the writing of the New Testament. The 27 books of the New Testament are the written record of the eyewitness accounts and the divinely charged proclamation of the apostles concerning Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who became a man, to die and be raised, for our salvation, and for God’s glory! Think about the implications of this for or assurance of salvation, and for the boldness we should have in telling others about the Lord!

4: Our joyous fellowship with God, His Son, and one another.

“So that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.” (v.4) The proclamation of the apostolic message about Jesus Christ was not an end in itself. No. Its greater purpose was fellowship and joy, both horizontal and vertical; with one another, as fellow believers in Christ, and with God the Father and with God the Son. And as we see from our profession of faith, our chief purpose in life is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever:

I BELIEVE IN ONE LORD JESUS CHRIST,

THE ONLY BEGOTTEN SON OF GOD,

BORN OF THE FATHER BEFORE ALL AGES.

GOD FROM GOD, LIGHT FROM LIGHT,

TRUE GOD FROM TRUE GOD,

BEGOTTEN, NOT MADE, CONSUBSTANTIAL

WITH THE FATHER;

THROUGH HIM ALL THINGS WERE MADE.

FOR US MEN AND FOR OUR SALVATION

HE CAME DOWN FROM HEAVEN,

AND BY THE HOLY SPIRIT WAS INCARNATE

OF THE VIRGIN MARY,

AND BECAME MAN.

Do you see the big picture of God’s purpose in Jesus Christ?

The eternal Son of God…

Appears as a man on earth…

The apostles are eyewitnesses to His life, death, and resurrection…

They are commissioned by Christ to proclaim the Good News about Him…

So that we might have joyous fellowship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… and with one another in the body of Christ…..

For all eternity!

Heavenly Father, during this season of Christmas let us remember that it is out duty (nay, our privilege) to testify to and proclaim the love of Jesus Christ. Let us herald the good news of His birth throughout the entire world and to all his people.  Amen

 

 

 

The Feast of St. Stephen the Martyr ~ The Very Rev. Lady Sherwood, OPI

Reading 1: ACTS 6:8-10; 7:54-59

Responsorial Psalm: PS 31:3CD-4, 6 AND 8AB, 16BC AND 17

Gospel: MT 10:17-22

Liturgical colour: Red.

Today, the day after all the joy and celebration of the birth of Our Lord, and after all the traditional enjoyment of the traditional festive food and gift giving, we come in total contrast, to the Feast of St. Stephen the first Martyr.

Throughout the Old Testament we see the faithful persecuted and often even killed by the faithless.  But it’s not just an Old Testament phenomenon.  This is what humans can do in their natural and unredeemed state.  We don’t like our sins pointed out to us.  We manage to convince ourselves that we’re really not all that bad.  We work hard to justify our sins.  We find the really, really sinful people in history—men like Nero or Stalin—and we compare ourselves to them and actually start to feel pretty good about where we stand before God.  And that’s when one of God’s faithful workers comes along—someone who, while by no means perfect, is living a life renewed by grace and who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit—and suddenly all the illusions we’ve built up about our own goodness dissolve and we get angry.  Like Cain, instead of acknowledging our sins and instead of repenting, we torment, persecute, and sometimes even kill the God’s people when they show us up.

In the Gospel Jesus weeps over Jews, knowing that they will continue to kill his messengers.  They’ll be killing Jesus himself in short order too.  They won’t heed the warnings.  But brothers and sisters, Jesus warns us—the faithful—too.  To his disciples he says:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

He prepares us for the fact that as we joyfully follow him, as we joyfully do the work of his kingdom, and as we witness the great Christmas joy we’ve found in the manger and at the cross—as we live a life of joy before our King—we will face the persecution of the world.  To submit ourselves to that seems nonsensical.  How can we find joy in persecution?  We find it there, because when we make Christ our Lord, he gives us that eternal perspective we’ve been hearing about through Advent.  Suddenly the things of the world are so much less important.  Our focus is on Jesus and on building his kingdom.  Our focus is on being witnesses of his new life and taking his Good News to the world.  And that change in perspective means that if we can effectively communicate the Gospel to someone while being tormented or even killed, well then, so be it.  Our joy in living in and sharing Christ is greater than our joy in the things of this world—even in life itself, because we know that our share in eternal life is so much greater.  But it’s not just about joy.  It’s about love too.  That’s another theme that carried through Advent.  We saw Love Incarnate in the manger yesterday.  And now because God has so changed our perspective by loving us, we start loving as he did—we can’t help it!  And it’s not just that we love God’s Church or that we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, but that we even love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us.  That’s the hardest command of all for us to obey, but the reason it’s so hard is because we haven’t been perfect in love ourselves.  The closer we grow to Christ, the better able we’ll be to live it.  But it’s also true that the better we live it, the closer we will be to Christ!

Living that way is hard.  We so often get bogged down in the world.  We focus more on life here than we do on life in the New Jerusalem.  We fall back into living in fear instead of living in faith.  The witness of St. Stephen should focus our eyes on our Lord and Saviour and on living the life he has given us.  No one knows for sure why this feast falls on the day after Christmas, but one thing I’ve realised is that it’s easy to be excited about grace and to live as Christmas people on Christmas Day.  But friends, we’re incredibly fickle, and the next day we forget about being Christmas people and go back to living in fear and faithlessness.  We forget our witness.  How often do you come to worship God on a Sunday morning, getting excited about grace, and yet even as you drive home someone on the road does something that makes you angry and you forget all about grace; or you get bad service while you’re out having lunch, and you forget all about grace; or you get a bad news the next morning about your job, and you forget all about grace.  The Church reminds us today that being Christmas people requires real commitment on our part and that as much as it’s joyful work, it’s hard work and work that requires real faith in the promises of God.

The story of Stephen actually begins in Chapter 6.  He was among the group of seven men appointed the first deacons by the apostles.  They were the servant-ministers of the Church in Jerusalem.  Stephen was excited about his work.  Acts 6:8 tells us:

Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.

He was doing what he was supposed to do as a Christmas person and he attracted attention.  The problem was that he attracted the attention of Jews who didn’t like what he was doing.  Now, I say “the problem”.  That just shows how our perspective isn’t fully where it should be.  We see it as a “problem” when we face persecution.  We forget that God is sovereign and that he’s working everything out for the good of his people and the spread of his kingdom.  Persecution is hard and painful, but it’s still “good”.  Remember, Jesus tells us that we find blessing in it.  So it was a “problem” that the Jews were upset by what Stephen was doing, but it wasn’t really a problem.  God was still in control.  We need to keep that in mind in our own lives: Christians don’t have “problems”, we have “opportunities” to exercise our faith.

And Stephen knew that, even as these angry men dragged him before the Sanhedrin and produced all sorts of false witnesses who attested that he was as a blasphemer.  He was on trial and it wasn’t going in his favour.  And yet even as these men told lies about him, St. Luke tells us that Stephen sat there with the face of an angel—he was peaceful even in the face of condemnation.  The one other place in Scripture we hear a description like this is of the face of Moses after he had been with God.  Stephen was close to his Saviour and was experiencing the “peace of the Lord”.

In fact, when the high priest gave Stephen a chance to defend himself, what did Stephen do?  He didn’t try to explain away the things he had said and done that he got him into trouble in the first place.  No.  He took the opportunity to preach the Gospel to the whole Sanhedrin!  He addressed them and started with Abraham and told the story of redemption down through Joseph and Moses.  He told them the stories of their fathers who were rescued from slavery in Egypt and then again how God cared for them in the wilderness and drove out their enemies in Canaan to give them a home—and he stressed how all these things were made possible by God and were his gifts.  And as he told the story, he noted how over and over the people rejected God—gladly claiming the great things he gave them, but never truly receiving God himself.  And with that Stephen brings them right down to Jesus and he says:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.  As your fathers did, so do you.  Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.  (Acts 7:51-53)

He doesn’t pull any punches.  He tells them that in rejecting Christ, they’re doing the same things that their fathers had done before them in rejecting the grace of God and in being disobedient.  We don’t have time this morning to read Stephen’s full sermon, but I urge you to read through it—Acts 7—sometime this next week.  This was a man who was full of passion for his Lord.  He was full of passion to share the Good News, even when he was in the lion’s den.  What strikes me is how what Stephen does here runs counter to so much of what the Church today tells us to do in terms of evangelism.  We’re told today not to be confrontational; we’re told not to talk too much about sin—or not to talk about it all—because that might turn people off; we’re told to focus on the positive; we’re told to witness the Gospel with our lives and that we might get into trouble sharing it with our mouths.  Look at what Stephen does!  Not only does he live the Gospel, but he speaks it out loud and clear!  He confronts these men right for being the religious hypocrites they are.  Stephen didn’t just sit there, quietly and say to himself: “I’m not going to bother with these guys.  I’d just be casting my pearls before swine.”  No, he shared the Good News with them and he did it peacefully and joyfully.  And he did it because he was living in the grace and love of Christmas.  He knew that these men might never come to know the Saviour but for his witness, but he also knew that if they were truly reprobate, their rejection of his Gospel sermon would simply confirm to them and to the world their rejection of the Saviour, and God would have greater glory in their condemnation.  God’s Word never returns void.  Stephen knew that.

St. Luke continues the story and tells us their response:

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.  But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him.  Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.  And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice,  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)

We might read that story and think, “Wow.  Stephen certainly had a bad day!”  Our eyes are blind to God at his work.  Stephen took a faithful stand for his Lord, and even as they got ready to drag him out to be stoned, God granted him a vision of his own glory and of Jesus enthroned beside him.  Stephen’s “bad day” was a good day for the Church, because on that day God set Stephen before the rest of us as a witness—a lesson as to what it means to be Christmas people—people of his grace and his love and his power.  He showed himself to Stephen so that Stephen could show himself and his faith in Christ to the rest of us.

But Stephen’s story does more than just encourage us to share the Good News and to stand firm in our faith.  He reminds us what it means to witness the Gospel in our deeds.  Stephen had that vision of the Lord Jesus before his eyes, and so even as these evil men started hurling stones at him, he responded with Christlike love.  When Jesus was hanging on the cross, do you remember what he prayed?  He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do.”  To the last Jesus was concerned with the souls and with the eternal state of the people around him—even his enemies.  He was an evangelist to the end, even when there were no more words to say to his persecutors and murderers, he was praying for them.  And Stephen, with his eyes on Jesus, does the same.  There was nothing left to say to these men and there was nothing left for him to do, and so he prayed for them: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Luke tells us that St. Paul was there that day.  He was holding coats so that people could do a better job throwing rocks at Stephen.  Of course, this is when he was known as Saul—before he met Jesus on the Damascus Road and had his life changed forever.  The next verse, 8:1, tells us that Paul approved of Stephen’s execution.  What we don’t know is what impact Stephen’s loving and gracious response had on Paul’s future conversion.  But Luke certainly included this detail for a reason.

Brothers and sisters, Stephen reminds us that we need to be living as Christmas people, not just on Christmas, but every day.  But he also shows us very dramatically what it means to live in the life and grace of Christmas—especially in light of St. Luke’s note that Paul was there that day.  We never know who is witnessing us and how those around us may, or may not, be impacted for the Gospel by what we say and what we do and by how we deal with the circumstances of life.  Who would have thought on that day that Saul of Tarsus—Hebrew of Hebrews and member of the Sanhedrin, the man who hunted down Christians and brought them to trial before the Jewish authorities—who would have thought that Stephen’s witness of love and grace that day might change the whole course of Church history as Saul later became Paul, the apostle to the gentiles.

And lastly, Stephen teaches us something about the extreme nature of grace and love and forgiveness.  These men were more than just run-of-the-mill enemies.  These weren’t just men who didn’t like him or were just angry with him.  These were men who saw him as a threat to their existence and wanted to kill him—who did kill him.  Stephen didn’t reciprocate their anger.  No, he saw them as Jesus saw them: sinful men whom he loved and who would face eternal damnation without the Gospel of love and grace.  Stephen knew the love that overcomes a multitude of sins and he knew it because he had experienced it himself through Jesus Christ.  St. John reminds us that anyone who claims to love God, but hates his brother is a liar—that you can’t have experienced the redeeming love of God and still hold grudges and hate in your heart against those who have wronged you.  Friends, to hold a grudge, to resent the sins of others, to fail to show a forgiving spirit, is to be self-righteous—it’s to ignore what God had done for you! Stephen could look on these angry men with love, precisely because he had himself experienced the love of Christ and God’s forgiveness—and he knew that there was nothing these men could do to him that was as bad as even his own smallest offences against God.  God had forgiven him so much—and he realise that so well—that it was a “small” thing for him to forgive these men and to show them love.  Lest we think that Jesus and John are just speaking in hyperbole when they tell us to love our enemies, St. Stephen shows us how the love of Christ really does work out in our lives—or at least how it should, if we truly claim to love God and to have experienced his grace and forgiveness.

So remember today: We are a Christmas people, living in the grace and love of God.  But remember too that God calls us to be Christmas people every day.  The joy of Christmas is something that should permeate every aspect of our lives that we might be witnesses, even to our enemies and even to those who would kill us, of the love and grace that God has shown us through his Son.  And so we pray, “Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings for the testimony of your truth we may look up steadfastly to heaven and see by faith the glory that is to be revealed and, filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn to love and pray for our persecutors as St. Stephen your first martyr prayed for his murderers to you, blessed Jesus, where you stand at the right hand of God to help all who suffer for you, our only mediator and advocate.  Amen.”

He Is Born!

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Rejoice!!!!! ~ Fr. Michael Beatty, Aspirant

Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ – Mass in the Holy Night

Is. 9:1-6; Ps. 96:1-3, 11-13; Ti. 2:11-14; Lk. 2:1-14

Rejoice, heavenly people! And you on earth, echo their joy! The battle is joined: Emmanu-el, “God With Us,” is born in the flesh! The final contest between good and evil is joined!

Our Gospel reading this morning is from the erudite account in Luke, written by a literate, educated man for a literate, educated, thoroughly cosmopolitan, and skeptical Gentile audience. Luke’s gospel is infused throughout with the ancient arts of rhetoric, grammar, and philosophy. Luke himself was deeply imbued with Platonic concepts of the relationship between the supernatural and the earthly planes, between what was above, and what was below. We see this most clearly in contrast with the account of Our Lord’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew, which was written by a Jewish evangelist for a Jewish audience.

Matthew essentially disregards the event that we commemorate tonight/this morning; reporting only the fact of the child’s birth as a terminal point before which Joseph refrained from marital relations with his wife (Mt. 1:25), before segueing into the appearance of the Magi “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” (Mt. 2:1). Luke, on the other hand, treats the Nativity as an event in and of itself – as, indeed, it is – and casts it in Platonic terms. We all know the story, if only from watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on TV every year. Linus’s soliloquy, as he attempts to explain the Nativity to Charlie Brown, is Luke’s account:

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flocks.

The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were struck with great fear.

The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.

And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:

‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to them on whom his favor rests.’” (Lk. 2:8-14)

Dear brothers and sisters, the appearance of the multitude of the heavenly host is nothing less than the unrestrained, jubilant exultation of Heaven at the birth of Heaven’s champion, transcending the Platonic barrier between the higher and the earthly planes. We know, from the Old Testament prophetic accounts of Isaiah and Daniel – to name only two – that the heavenly host praise God unceasingly. That’s Heaven; this is earth, and – according to Plato – ne’er the twain shall meet. Yet in this moment, when God is not merely incarnate – as He has been since the Annunciation, nine months ago – but born in the flesh, completing and perfecting the entry of Heaven’s champion into the arena of combat with Evil, “all Heaven breaks loose,” so to speak, in celebration so cacophonous, so raucous, that it transcends the Platonic barrier between Heaven and earth, and is manifest even to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks.

One could argue that the Platonic barrier is a result of, and a sign of, the alienation of Creation from its Creator in the Fall of Man. Before the Fall, there was no barrier between Heaven and earth; Adam and Eve existed in the same state as the heavenly host. With their eyes of vision, they beheld the beatific vision; the Garden of Eden was, literally, Heaven on earth. After the Fall, the fact of the barrier between Heaven and earth constitutes the brokenness of Creation. These arguments, I think, find firm support in a close reading of both creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2. If these arguments hold, then the heavenly rejoicing at the Nativity of the Lord becomes, from a Platonic standpoint, what orthodox Christian theology asserts that it is: a new Creation, a return to the “status quo ante” when Heaven and Earth were in harmony.

If we see the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as a bridge, or a linkage, between Heaven and Earth – God reigns on His Throne in Heaven; God walks the earth in human form – then we must see, in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, the same linkage between the supernatural realm of God, who is “pure Spirit” (cf. Baltimore Catechism of 1891, Lesson Second, A.13 “God is a spirit infinitely perfect,” and A.16b “[God] is a pure spirit …”) and the earthly plane of material existence. Where the first Creation was marred by original sin, the Nativity of God Incarnate at least sets the stage for a new, better Creation, one in which the final, decisive victory over sin and death will be won.

Thus, the Nativity is, at the same time, both the completion of a process within salvation history, and also the beginning of the next stage of the God-initiated and God-mediated process of redemption of the world. The Nativity is not our salvation – salvation is not completed, it is not perfected, by the Nativity. The humility of the manger at Christmas will have to be succeeded by the scandal of the Cross on Good Friday, and the triumph of the grave on Easter Sunday. The Nativity of the Lord is pointless without His Death; His Death would have been impossible without His Nativity. But, by Our Lord’s being born in the flesh, the battle between good and evil is joined. The competitors are “in the ring,” so to speak. The host of Heaven exults, and earth “echo[es] their joyous strains.”

For me, the most lump-in-the-throat-inducing of all Christmas hymns is “O Holy Night,” the second part of the first stanza of which sets the scene of the Nativity in cosmic terms, situated within the sweep of salvation history: “Long lay the world/ In sin and error pining,/ ’Til He appeared,/ And the soul felt its worth./ A thrill of hope,/ The weary world rejoices,/ For yonder breaks/ A new and glorious morn!” A thrill of hope, at which the weary world rejoices – we feel that thrill. Our world lies groaning in sin and error, pining for salvation. We understand. We are there. The anticipation of the hymn is our anticipation.

Sing! ~ The Rev. Robert Paresi, Aspriant

As far back as I can possibly remember, (and I’m in my mid-sixties, I’ve found that the forgettery is better than the memory, and I have probably forgotten more that I can remember,) but as far back as I can remember, music has always been an important part of my life. Music has soothed me, comforted me and got me through a bad day. I am what some may refer to as a frustrated musician. I was never able to master the discipline to play any type of an instrument, but not without a lack of trying; and try I did. The drums; the piano; the organ; the guitar, violin and even the accordion. Psalm 81:1-2 says, “Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob! Begin the music, strike the tambourine, play the melodious harp and lyre.“ But I  realized the only instrument I might ever be able to master would be the CD, or the radio.

My mom raised me to attend St. Andrews Episcopal Church and I sang in the parish choir under the direction of Mr. Charles Johnsons, a man whom I admired for many reasons, especially his ability to master the keyboard of the church’s organ. I remember Mr. Johnson always referring to our voices as instruments. He shared many of his gifts of music and singing with the entire choir. He told us about St Augustine who spoke about the praise of singing and wrote that those who sang prayed twice. “For he that singeth praise, not only praiseth, but praiseth with gladness: he that singeth praise, not only singeth, but also loveth him whom he singeth.” In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving.

After singing in the choir for many years it finally dawned on me that I had indeed mastered the ability to play an instrument, even if it was my own voice. So I tried to take care of my instrument and sang many years for what ever reason I felt I was being called to sing. I loved to sing, and sang semi-professionally for many years. One of my greatest memories, was singing “Ave Maria” for the Late Cardinal Terrance Cooke, of New York, who at the time was the Military Vicar. Psalm 95: 1-2 says, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.”

It is my hope that we, like the herald angels in the Christmas carol,  will continue to sing praise to our God and King not only during a Holiday season but throughout the year in church or wherever the spirit hits us. Songs of the heart go a long way in healing.

Psalm 47: 5-7, God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise.

Let us pray.

Oh Lord, please bless our music that it might glorify your name. May the talent that you have bestowed upon us be used only to serve you.  Let our music be a witness to your majesty and love, and remind us that you are always watching, and listening, from your throne above.  May your presence and beauty be found in every note, and may the words that are sung reach the hearts of your people so they will draw closer to you.  May your Spirit guide us through every measure so that we might be the instruments of your peace, and proclaim your glory with glad voices.  Amen.

Do Not Be Afraid ~ Fr. Shawn Gisewhite, OPI

“Tell me the story of when I was born.” This is a request that Ethan, my friend’s 10 year old son makes whenever we get together: “Tell me the story of when I was born,” he always says.

And so his parents go through the whole story—the town and the house where they lived before his birth, the day or two leading up to that moment, and then the day of the birth. They him of the drive to the hospital, the helpful and not-so-helpful hospital staff, the length of my labor, the thoughts and feelings they had during the hard wait for him to arrive.

All of these things, all of these trivial, important things, build toward the big moment—the moment Ethan appears in the flesh, the moment his parents behold and hold him for the first time, the moment he is first called by his name.

“Tell me the story of when I was born.” Ethan’s request, of course, is not just to hear the facts surrounding his birth. Rather, he wishes to hear again about relationships and identity, to hear how the beginning informs the present and the future. And for his parents telling the story, it’s yet another chance to tell Ethan and anyone else who will listen about how they see the world and what’s important to them.

“Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way” – this is how Matthew begins the story of the Incarnation. And Matthew’s phrasing of it makes us believe, perhaps, that we’re about to hear a detailed telling of Jesus’s birth in the way that Luke might tell it. But Matthew, we will discover, is a different kind of writer than Luke. Luke wants to tell us the story through the experiences of Mary, a young woman without status who carries the son of God within her, and the shepherds, those living in the fields who will be the first to hear of the birth. On the other hand, Matthew wants to tell us about Joseph, a man whose goodness and righteousness take him far, but not all the way, as he prepares for the coming of something completely new: Emmanuel, “God with us.”

But I get ahead of myself.

The evangelist who composed the Gospel of Matthew was probably a Jewish Christian, possibly a scribe. The historical evidence suggests that he wrote between 80 and 90 CE and addressed his work to a community in conflict: Jewish Christians who were being pushed out of larger Jewish communities. These larger Jewish communities were led by Pharisees, Rabbis who assumed leadership of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem.

And so Matthew is at pains to place his own religious community squarely within its Jewish heritage and to portray a Jesus whose Jewish identity is beyond doubt. He therefore, begins his gospel by tracing Jesus’s genealogy. He could have gotten away with tracing Jesus back to King David, but Matthew takes no chances and traces Jesus’s lineage all the way back to Abraham. For Matthew, Jesus IS a Jew.

It’s within this context, then, that the focus on Joseph appears in Matthew’s story of Jesus’s birth. Joseph embodies the best parts of the Jewish tradition, a tradition that was all about keeping the law as a way to live with God. The law was a tried-and-true pattern of actions that expressed a Jew’s closeness to God and right relationship with others.

In Matthew 1:18–25 we read that during the time of his engagement to Mary, Joseph discovers that she is pregnant. Joseph knows the baby is not his, and he knows that Jewish law would find Mary guilty of adultery, an act that can be punished with death and that is always punishable by shame. The law mandated that Joseph divorce her. However, because Joseph is a righteous man, he also understands another part of his Jewish heritage: he understands that the law is to be tempered with mercy. And so instead of exposing Mary to a public divorce, as the reading says, he decides to dismiss her quietly, in a way that would reduce public inquiry into what has happened.

But as we see, even law tempered with mercy isn’t dramatic enough for Joseph to help usher in Emmanuel who is “God with us.” Something astonishing is needed. Something that goes beyond the old patterns of action that Joseph knows so well. Something that can only come from the shadowy world of dreams. It is in the night, away from the daylight world of the law, past even the late-in-the-day tempering impulse of mercy, that an alternative explanation of what is happening comes. And it’s through this dream that God reaches out and grasps this good and righteous man, this one who is the best that the tried-and-true tradition can offer.

An angel appears to Joseph and speaks the same words that we will hear on Christmas in Luke’s gospel: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to do something outrageous in order to bring to fruition something that the law and the prophets have yearned for, do not be afraid to do something that pitches you past any mercy you can imagine—do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!” (I paraphrased a little for a more dramatic read.) This is a striking moment in Joseph’s life; all of what he knows—his life, his religion, his ethics—is being questioned by an angel in a dream, and that angel is inviting him to forsake all that knowledge and understanding to participate in a larger story.

I believe that we’re all a little like Joseph; we all limit ourselves by our tried-and-true ways of doing things. We each have our own ways of dealing with personal, spiritual, and professional matters. Our own ways of moving through this demanding season of the year. Perhaps there is a voice we’re already dimly aware of from a dark and mysterious place. Perhaps it’s a voice we’re trying to avoid. A voice that is asking us to go beyond those tried-and-true ways in order to surrender more fully to God and to assist in the coming of Emmanuel “God with us” in our own lives and in the life of the world.

But what will going beyond those tried-and-true ways mean? What things that we wish we could dismiss quietly might we be asked to make our own? “Do not be afraid,” the angel is saying to you and to me about making these mysterious things our own. “Do not be afraid.”

It seems that throughout the Bible God is always trying to tell us this—“Do not be afraid, Abraham, when I ask you to leave your homeland and to travel to a new place that will be your own. Do not be afraid, Moses, for I will be with you when you, a slave, speak to Pharaoh, the king of the Egyptians. Do not be afraid of any evil, David, for the Lord will be your shepherd no matter where you are. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found grace with God” (Paraphrasing again. Gulty.)
Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to act.

And this brings us back to Joseph. In Matthew’s story of Jesus’s birth, Joseph is asked to make a leap, to take an action that goes beyond how he would normally understand the law, and in listening to the angel and taking this leap of action, he is doing what some see as quintessentially Jewish. About this, Rabbi Abraham Heschel once wrote, “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to surpass his deeds, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”

In these last few days of Advent, a season of darkness and the mystery, a season when we need to retrace the stories of new birth and the return of light, may you and I hear a word from that dark place, a word that banishes all fear and encourages us to take one tiny leap of action to draw nearer to something we do not fully understand. Emmanuel is God with us: do not be afraid.
Amen.