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Christmas in Exile
A Sermon on the Nativity of Christ
Today is the Feast of the Nativity, whereon we commemorate the Incarnation of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. So great is this feast-day that even centuries of unprecedented godlessness and apostasy have been unable to erase it from our culture’s remembrance, even when nearly all other trappings of our Christian faith and heritage have disappeared from our social landscape. And though our scholars now try to disguise it with altered abbreviations, even our calendars still proclaim the great truth that human history was irrevocably altered and even created anew on this astonishing day two thousand years ago.
Of course, it is one thing simply to celebrate a feast-day — it is quite another to remember what that feast-day truly celebrates. And at our worst, what has been termed our “culture of inversion” has taken this great and holy day, on which the King of Heaven Himself was voluntarily born into the lowest poverty to set us sinners free, and has turned it into the feast-day of consumerism and avarice, celebrating our slavish devotion to the all-devouring machine of industry.
But that is at our worst. In our better moments, Christmastime — even today — still has something of the Dickensian spirit of family and fellowship, of innocence and simplicity, of love and compassion and care for those around us, whom God has put into our lives. At our best, this holiday is about home.
There is, no doubt, much that is commendable in this. But it must also be admitted that there is not too terribly much of Christ in this. Even on the occasion of His birth, it seems that we must still go rather out of our way in order to truly find His presence amongst all the wreaths and the wrapping paper, the tinsel and the trees.
But in fact, this hiddenness of Christ at Christmastime is not something reserved solely for our modern age. After all, it was not so very different on that first Christmas night two thousand years ago. On that first holy night, the Christ child did not appear suddenly in power and glory, coming in the clouds of heaven for all the world to see (as He will at His Second Coming). No, He came then in lowliness and humility, silently and hidden. Even those of His own chosen people who had spent their lifetimes studying the prophecies of His coming neither witnessed His advent nor saw His face. On that first Christmas, the Son of God came to this earth precisely as a pilgrim… and only those who had likewise become pilgrims were vouchsafed to be with Him in the lowliness of that cave, on the night when human nature was created anew.
The Mother of God and St. Joseph met the Nativity of Christ as pilgrims, having been driven from their home at the behest of the Roman census, and (as we well know) could not find even the lowliest of human lodgings on that night. The Gospel reading we have just heard tells us of the Wise Men from the East, who forsook their homes and families for the hard and weary path of pilgrimage, all for the hope of one day meeting Christ — though nobody and nothing had ever told them about Him, save only the mysterious Star, and “the law written in their hearts” (cf. Rom. 2:15). Even the shepherds, though they lived nearby, still had to choose to leave their earthly cares and occupations behind them in order to come to the cave and see the newborn Son of God.
And so, my brothers and sisters, if we also wish to behold and to participate in the great mystery of this feast-day, then there is no choice but for us also to become pilgrims. We too must make our own the words of the shepherds: “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” (Luke 2:15). Because it turns out that Christmastime is not properly observed by sitting at home, drinking warm drinks and enjoying one another’s company by the fire. Christmastime can only be observed properly by those who have chosen to become “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).
That is precisely the gift the Church has been trying to give us in the long forty-day fast leading up to today’s feast. Through the fast, the Lord has been calling out to us as He once did to the Patriarch Abraham: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee” (Gen. 12:1). The time of the fast has been given to us as a golden opportunity to wield the three great weapons with the power to sever our bonds to this earthly life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And if we have perhaps failed to wield these weapons as we ought, well, then that only means the fast has proven instead to be an occasion to take that other path of escape from this false and transitory life: the path of true humility, and hope in the infinite mercy of our God.
But now the time of the fast is over, and the great day of the Feast has finally arrived. Does this mean, though, that we have reached the end of our journey, that the path of our pilgrimage is concluded, that our time of exile is now past? Does this mean that, having completed our long and arduous labor, we can now return (perhaps with a sigh of relief) to the same everyday life we left behind us forty days ago? Or do we keep this feast still as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth”?
I hope the answer is obvious. But I also hope you do not think I say this to stifle your joy on this great and holy day, for truly we all ought to rejoice unstintingly, with our whole hearts! But the true joy of Christmas is not to be found in good food and delicious drink, in pleasant pastimes and thoughtful gifts, or even in the nearness of family and the closeness of friends. No, the true joy of Christmas is nothing other than the joy proclaimed by the angelic hosts, and echoed throughout all the churches in the world on this day: Christ is Born!
Christ is born, God is with us, and nothing in this world can ever be the same again. Long ago the first Adam fled from the footsteps of God in the Garden, but today the footsteps of the Lord — clothed now in our own human flesh — have been heard even here on this broken and sinful earth, summoning us to return at long last to Paradise, to our true and only home.
So as we keep the feast today with joy and gratitude, as we receive into our own bodies the Body and Blood of Christ, and as we afterward partake of the earthly consolations that God has blessed, let us not do so as ones who have already reached their destination, and who have nothing more to do than to take their ease and enjoy the pleasures which are at hand. Rather, let us receive these benefactions of God — both heavenly and earthly — as provisions which the Lord has given us on our journey, to strengthen us as we continue the path of our pilgrimage, to sustain us as we walk the long road home.
But although our journey still continues, yet even so on this day something about that journey has profoundly changed. Before today, we walked this earth as exiles; today, God Himself has come to walk that path of exile alongside us, and though we are still pilgrims, yet are we strangers from Him no more. For truly:
The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light. Ye that dwell in the region and shadow of death, a light shall shine upon you. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, Whose government is upon His shoulder, and of His peace there is no end. And His name shall be called Angel of Great Counsel, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Ruler, Prince of Peace, Father of the age to come… for God is with us.
Truly, God is with us! God is with us, and He will abide with us forever… so long as we ourselves are willing to abide with Him. So let us spend these great and holy days abiding in His presence in the cave of our hearts, savoring each and every moment, and allowing no earthly care or attachment to entice us away. And may Christ our True God, through His grace and mercy and love for mankind, in due time bring all of us to abide with Him forever in that great and glorious age which is to come. Amen!
Christ is Born!