IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.
“Even if someone commits a deadly sin, if he turns away from it with all his soul, abstains from it and turns back to the Lord in deed and truth, he should take courage and be of good hope, for he shall not lose eternal life and salvation. When a child according to the flesh meets death, he is not brought back to life by his father, but someone born of Christ, even though he falls into deadly sins, if he turns again and runs to the Father who raises the dead, is made alive once more, obtains divine adoption, and is not cast out of the company of the just,” says St. Gregory Palamas to his flock in Thessaloniki, Greece.
The favor of God is evident towards those born into the Jewish nation and especially into the direct lineage of Christ; however, the means through which one draws near to God has never changed despite one’s birth into a particular race or nation. Nor should one conclude that he finds favor with the Lord due to wealth, one’s station in life, or assume that he has found favor as evidenced by prolonged health.
Moreover, the inverse is also not true: to be born outside of the Jewish nation never meant being born outside of the goodness of God nor His providential watchfulness. Being born into poverty or descending from wealth to poverty, nor born infirm or descending from health to sickness never, and most certainly never, ever implied abandonment by God, if not precisely the opposite.
St. John Chrysostom elucidates five reasons for why God does not hinder temptations to come our way, be they sickness, poverty, or any other:
- to teach us that we have become much stronger;
- that we may continue modest and not exalted even by the greatness of our gifts, as temptations have the power to repress us;
- in order that that wicked demon, who is for a while doubtful about our desertion of him, by the touchstone of temptations may be well assured that we have utterly forsaken and fallen from him;
- that we may in this way be made stronger and better tempered than any steel; and
- that we may obtain a clear demonstration of the treasures entrusted to us.
No, sufferings or temptation are not necessarily an indication of abandonment by God but instead are an aid in the spiritual life to draw us closer to Him.
The two Sundays prior to Nativity commemorate the Holy Fathers who preceded Christ, all those who existed during the Old Testament times, we might say, and the Holy Forefathers of Christ commemorated today; that is, Jesus’ spiritual genealogy last Sunday and His physical genealogy this Sunday.
The Magnanimity, Nobility, and Dignity of Israel
The Gospel (Matthew 1:1-25)
Today’s Gospel reading recounts the descendants of Christ from the Prophet-King David, as an offspring of Abraham, through to Christ, the promised Messiah.
The significance of Christ’s genealogy is primarily to trace His lineage because His birth and person are the subjects of the prophecies throughout the Old Covenant, and He is the fulfillment of those prophecies.
“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5.2, Reading from The First Hour from the Royal Hours for Nativity)
“This is our God, and there shall none other be accounted of in comparison of Him. He hath found out all the way of knowledge, and hath given it unto Jacob His servant, and to Israel His beloved. Afterward did He shew Himself upon earth, and conversed with men” (Baruch 3:35-37; Reading from The Third Hour from the Royal Hours for Nativity).
“Moreover the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign from the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord. And [Isaiah] said, Hear ye now, O house of David; is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that He may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good” (Isaiah 7:10-15; Reading from The Sixth Hour from the Royal Hours for Nativity)
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:6-7; Reading from The Ninth Hour from the Royal Hours for Nativity).
The books of the Old Testament contain a map whose goal is to locate and indicate the Messiah; the legend of such a map consists of prophecies which designate the family lines, towns, and cities in which He is to be found.
The Apostle Paul affirms in his Epistle to the Romans, the favor which God bestowed upon the Israelites, noting that to them pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises. They are the fathers, of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came… (cf. Romans 9:4-5).
The Characteristics of an Israelite of God
The Epistle (Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40 )
The Apostle Paul’s emphasis in today’s Epistle to the Hebrews demonstrates the uniqueness of the people whom God had taken from the world and nurtured like a hen does her chicks, or what is more, like an unwanted child. The Prophet Ezekiel describes the relationship thusly,
As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling clothes. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you; but you were thrown out into the open field, when you yourself were loathed on the day you were born.
And when I passed by you and saw you struggling in your own blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ Yes, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare.
When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine. (Ezekiel 16:4-8)
The unwanted child became the treasure of God.
Moreover, how can such benevolence be repaid? What is expected from such a child? The Apostle Paul tells us, it is faith, faith in God’s promise of a home in the heavenly kingdom. He continues by demonstrating how faith was manifest even by those not in the direct lineage of Jesus Christ but yet still remained the children of the Covenant, the children of Israel. They are the exemplars and they are saints of Israel. They are:
Saints who had faith – Noah to build an ark, Abraham to offer Isaac, Elijah to construct a water-soaked altar upon which God would reveal His power.
Saints who looked for a city whose foundation and builder is God – Moses leaving his life in Egypt but would dwell in the heavenly Jerusalem, David unable to complete the temple but would dwell in God’s temple, John the Baptist who wandered in the desert while awaiting the homeland above.
Saints who conceived when well past the childbearing age – Abraham and Sarah by a promise to conceive Isaac; Anna and Joachim to conceive the Theotokos; Zachariah and Elizabeth to conceive St. John the Baptist.
Saints who suffered – Joseph sold as a slave by his brothers; Isaiah being sawn in two.
Saints who lost – Adam and Eve when Cain killed Abel gave birth to Seth; Ruth who lost her husband; Job had lost his livelihood and children.
Saints who overcame nature – Moses crossed the Red Sea; Joshua stopped the sun in its course; the Three Youths in the fire; Jonah kept alive in the belly of the whale
Saints who overcame death – Elijah being taken away in a fiery chariot, Enoch being transported to heaven.
These are saints and exemplars because, through faith in the promises of God, they overcame the world and found rest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
“For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children.” (cf. Rom. 9.6-7). Being a Jew is not the means by which one finds favor with God. His blessings come to those who live uprightly in virtue and have faith in God’s promises, for without faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11.6).
It was never otherwise for the Israelites, and neither is it otherwise for us today.
God’s goodness towards us
In so many ways, we have before our eyes, all that is needed to aid us in our salvation. The Holy Spirit in us through Baptism and Chrismation. Present amongst us is God and His Holy Angels within this Temple of God in which we stand. Soon we will come to partake of the body and blood of Christ through which we are gradually transformed from carnal men to spiritual men. The saints are before us in their icons, aiding through prayer, interceding, and desiring all that is beneficial for our salvation, even more so in the presence of their relics that abide with us. The theology of hymns is chanted into our ears as we pray in these Divine Services. Before communing, we have Confessed, expelling and desiring to put to death the passions and all that weighs us down and ensnares us. For many here, the grace of the tonsure is present to aid you into the Kingdom, God helping you. For others, there is the grace of ordination through which you are compared to the holy Martyrs and whose joy is Christ our God, whom you serve.
However, how do we understand these blessings which we have received? Is there thankfulness? Is there striving towards virtue and godliness? Is there the desire to struggle to commune with God in prayer via the many avenues which He has given us – icons, relics, the Holy Mysteries?
Or perhaps we think that we are lacking in grace as one thought or another may be telling us. Perhaps we have squandered the grace we have been given and are left desolate and grasping at hope. Perhaps due to our attachment to worldly desires, we see ourselves as regressing instead of progressing in the spiritual life.
Despite the prodigal we may be, the Father does not begrudgingly take us back into the fold, recounting our faults and weaknesses the whole time. No, God is a very special Father who, notwithstanding our squandering of grace and neglect of the goodnesses God has bestowed upon us, He welcomes our repentance with a festive banquet and a fatted calf. He is the Father who gives to his adopted sons and daughters all the promises made to the lawful heirs without any stinginess and overflows with the fullness of all blessings.
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world (John 3.17), although He might correct it, but that the world through Him might be saved. The world of Jews and the world of Gentiles alike are called to a life of virtue, a life in Christ. The world of Muslims, of Hindus, of Buddhists, of Atheists. The world of Republicans and Conservatives, Socialists and Democrats, Vaxxers and Anti-vaxxers, heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals. The world full of humanity. To all of us humans, in five days, we will hear the angel say, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
May we set aside every thought, every desire, every passion, every sin which weighs us down and holds us back, and turn to Christ who has the power to raise the dead and grant new life to our soul.
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
 Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. Christopher Veniamin, trans. and ed. (Essex: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014), Homily 57, 468-476.
 Homily 13 on the Gospel of Matthew
 Cf. The Festal Menaion, Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware trans. (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998), 221-251.