In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we are brought to the cusp of the fast which tomorrow will spill over into the celebration of the birth of the Messiah of the human race, Jesus Christ. In this brimming up, today we also commemorate all of the righteous who have lived up until the birth of Christ, not only His holy ancestors but all the righteous in whose lives the coming of the Son of God is announced by word and by deed. Moreover, for us, the eleventh hour has come, and soon we will participate in the incarnation of Christ, reaping the fruits of our labors in the fast and desiring God to be born in our hearts on this day.
The Fallen Image
One of the many significances of the Nativity is its connection back in time to that day on which the crown of God’s creation was fashioned: Man. On the previous days, all that God created, He saw and called it good. On the sixth day, He created Adam and Eve and viewing all the created order, He now calls it very good. Why are Adam and Eve unique compared to the rest of the created order? Because they were made in the image and likeness of God. Nothing in all of creation has this similarity to God. This is why mankind has such dignity, is so great, is so noble, because he is made in the image of God. This is why you are so great. This is why the prostitute, the thief, the killer is so great—because they are made in the image of God, even if they deny it or mar it by their actions.
How can we speak of the greatness of man when we are so fully aware of his feebleness, let alone his atrocities and cruelties? This is true, but perhaps it is this awareness which ihas become the most significant impediment to cloud our judgment, to obstruct us from seeing the image of God in ourselves and each other and therefore inhibiting us from seeing what good there is. It is not this awareness which is wrong but its imbalance. How easy it is to see the fault in others but not the good and not only to see another’s faults but even to be suspicious of their having other faults which we might not see. Why do we not see the good in him instead let alone find excuses for him. Why do we not condemn ourselves for our inability to see the good.
In our defense can we not say we have trust issues? We’re jaded? We’ve been hurt? Moreover, why would we not say these things? Many of us do say this because it is the day in which we live, it is the time, it is the mood of the historical moment. Feeling betrayed and let down by the world around us does not have to beget bitterness; forgiveness and compassion towards ourselves and towards others can break that jaded and hardened heart. Do not choose to be suspicious of others. Do not choose not to see the good. Do not ignore it. Are we not educated by the lives of the saints. Despite the evil of men, which we may be aware of in the world around us and which may have even touched our own lives in one way or another, the goodness of God is still present if only we have the eyes to see it.
In the Book of Ezekiel, the Lord, speaking to the Prophet, describes His actions towards Jerusalem. He says,
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 cloths. 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. (16:4-8)
Not only does God act on our lives directly, as in the example of Jerusalem, but he also acts indirectly through others who shine forth in the fruits of the Spirit, in virtue, in goodness, in love. Sometimes this takes place with someone we have met and sometimes through reading about such people.
The Lives of the Saints
Despite our blindness, we do have the lives of the saints to reveal these things to us—not fairytales, not myths, not “true stories which never happened”, but actual people who, by grace, overcame their fallen nature. “He who keeps in mind the way of the saints by imitating them,” says St. Maximos the Confessor, “not only shakes off the deadly paralysis of the passions but also takes up the life of the virtues” (Second Century of Various Texts, #21).
Sometimes these grand philosophical constructions and theories about life and mankind are not big enough in and of themselves to command our allegiance. But when we come upon the saints, those holy ones, who are the embodiment of the Christian faith, they can overcome all of our doubts and struggles. At other times, it is not even because of a saint but someone being kind or civil to us which begins to wake us up.
Those saints, those righteous ones who lived before Christ are who we commemorate today. Those who believed the promises that were given of the coming of the Messiah, of the coming of the one who would raise the image that had fallen.
The Old Testament Saints
We have just listened to the Apostle Paul’s recounting of them, noting that of them, “the world was not worthy.”
Those 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.
Those 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.
Those saints who conceived when well past the 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.
Those saints who suffered – Joseph sold as a slave by his brothers; Isaiah being sawn in two.
Those 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.
Those 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
Those saints who overcame death – Elijah being taken away in a fiery chariot, Enoch being transported to heaven.
In them is seen how God acts towards and through those who have faith in Him, those who desire Him above all else, those who have struggled, have doubted, have failed, and yet, the “world is not worthy of them”, indeed.
Now being brought to the edge of Nativity by the holiness of all those who have kept the faith in expectation of the Messiah, having arrived at the eleventh hour, what have we done? Are we prepared to meet Christ tomorrow? What should we expect? Is there any reward apart from the external celebrations of the feast? Is anything born in our heart? Is there new life, a vitality sprouting through the grace of God who sees each of our sacrifices and struggles?
What if we have nothing? We have struggled but failed. We have given way to selfishness, to gluttony, to sloth, to not loving our brother, our neighbor. Have we loved the passions because of pleasure and avoided virtue because of pain (St. Maximos the Confessor, First Century of Various Texts, #52).
At the eleventh hour, you who are heavy laden, beaten down by your own thoughts, your own struggles, anxieties, weaknesses—come—for you are welcomed at this late hour to the feast, welcomed like he who is invited at the first hour.
Through the prayers of the holy Forefathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Amen.