The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for December, 2006

Continuing Christmas

We’re still in the post-festal time of Christmas, so don’t follow the lead of our commercial society that eliminates all traces of Christmas on the following day (or when they’ve processed all the returned merchandise). Don’t stop singing and playing Christmas carols, don’t take your tree down, and continue in meditation on this great and divine mystery at least for the “twelve days of Christmas.” To that end, I will share with you some of the liturgical texts from our Christmas services, which I find to be a blessing for deeper reflection and poetic beauty.

“Rejoice, O my soul, for in a cave was born Christ the King. A strange and incredible mystery I behold: the cave becomes Heaven, the Virgin becomes the Throne of Cherubim, the manger becomes the place where lies the unplaceable Christ God. To Him we sing praises.

“Plainly foreshadowed by the burning bush that was not consumed, a hallowed womb has borne the Word. God is mingled with the form of mortal men, and so he looses the unhappy womb of Eve from the bitter curse of old. We men give Him glory.

“The choir of shepherds abiding in the field was overwhelmed by the strange sight they were counted worthy to behold: for they looked upon the all-blessed Offspring of an all-pure Bride. And they saw also the ranks of bodiless angels who sang in praise of Christ the King, incarnate without seed.

“Of your own will, O Most High, You have come forth equal to mortal men, taking flesh from the Virgin to purge the poison of the serpent’s head. God by nature, You lead all from the gates that know no sun to the life-giving Light.

“The Master, by his coming in the flesh, has cut clean through the harsh enmity of the flesh against Him, and has destroyed the might of the murderer of our souls. Uniting the world to the immaterial essences, He has made the Father merciful to the creation.

“God the Word, who was in the beginning with God, seeing our nature powerless to guard unharmed its ancient fellowship with Him, now grants it new strength: abasing Himself, in a second act of fellowship He makes it once again free from the passions.

“O Christ our Defender, You have put to shame the adversary of man, using as shield your ineffable Incarnation. Taking man’s form, You have bestowed upon him the joy of becoming godlike. Once he sought this of old and fell from on high into the dark depths of the earth. [Gen. 3:5]

“You have overthrown by your almighty power the fierce sin that raised its head in wanton pride and raged with blasphemy throughout a world gone mad. Those whom in times past it dragged down, today you have delivered from its snares, O Benefactor, who of your own will have taken flesh.

“You have come, O Resurrection of the nations, to bring back the nature of man from its wanderings, leading it from the hills of the wilderness to a pasture rich in flowers. Destroy the violent strength of the murderer of man, O You who in your providence have appeared as man and God.

“The three children of the Old Covenant who walked in the fire yet were not burned prefigured the womb of the Maiden that remained sealed when she gave birth in fashion past nature. It was the same grace of God that brought both these wonders to pass in a miracle, and rouses the peoples to sing in praise.”

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

The Protomartyr

During the post-festal time of Christmas we celebrate St Stephen, whom we officially call “The Holy Apostle, Protomartyr, and Archdeacon Stephen” in our liturgy. Protomartyr means, of course, the first martyr. In our tradition, “apostle” has wider application that just the Twelve, for it applies to the Seventy as well, and to a few others, like the first deacons. Then we have some who are called “Equal to the Apostles,” like St Mary Magdalen, who was an apostle to the Apostles after the Resurrection. Finally, St Stephen was the most illustrious of the first seven deacons ordained by the apostles.

The protomartyr is, in my opinion, one of the more attractive figures of the New Testament. He gets a great write-up in the Acts of the Apostles. He was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” “full of grace and power,” and he “did great wonders and signs among the people,” and his opponents “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” And when he was brought to trial, “his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:5, 8, 10, 15).

He gave a rather long-winded speech to the hostile Council. Finally, he came to his dramatic and pointed conclusion: “You stiff-necked people… you always resist the Holy Spirit… 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.” Needless to say, he did not exactly ingratiate himself with the Council members, who by now were grinding their teeth in rage against him.

Stephen sealed his fate by having a mystical experience on the spot. The Lord knew, even if Stephen was not yet quite sure of it, that this deacon was about to become the protomartyr, and so He opened the gates of Heaven to him. “Behold,” cried the witness to Christ, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” To Stephen it was ecstasy, but to the corrupt judges it was blasphemy. So they dragged him out to stone him to death.

His martyrdom is highly significant, and not merely because it was the first. His dying words showed him not only to be a Christ-figure, but also a witness to the divinity of Christ, and to the whole new direction the believing Church was to take. First, his imitation of (or rather, communion with) Christ in his death. When Jesus was dying He said: “Father, forgive them…” When St Stephen was dying, he said: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Jesus’ dying words were: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” St Stephen’s dying words were: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” This is the first time that anyone publicly prayed to Jesus. The apostles had proclaimed his Lordship and worked miracles in his name, but as far as I know, Stephen was the first to pray directly to Him, to entrust his immortal soul to Him. This puts Christ on a par with the Father, and places Jesus squarely in the center of the life of the brand new Church. Jesus was now the Lord, a term hitherto used only for God. Jesus commended his spirit to the Father. Henceforth all believers will commend their spirits to Jesus, and through Him to the Father.

There was someone standing by, who heard St Stephen utter those words. His name was Saul, and it wouldn’t be long before he too would be praying to Jesus and spreading his Church everywhere. And he too would become a martyr for the Lord, joining a long and triumphant procession of witnesses to Him who became man out of love for us, humbled Himself unto death on the Cross, and was glorified at the right hand of the Father. Who knows if we will someday join this procession? But martyr or not, we can still witness with our words and deeds, with our love and fidelity. No price is too high to “be in that number” of the faithful followers of Christ. Lord Jesus, receive our spirits…

The Child and His Mother

Christmas is dedicated to the Son, and the day after Christmas is dedicated to the Mother—without whom there would be no Son, not in the flesh anyway. The Son of God existed from all eternity with the Father and the Spirit, but He entered time through the body and the consent of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Byzantine tradition the day after Christmas is the feast of the Synaxis (“gathering” of the faithful) of the Mother of God.

We heard in the Gospel of Christmas that, having experienced and witnessed such marvelous and divine things, Mary kept them all within herself and pondered them in her heart. Yet events soon made it clear that hers was not to be a life of contemplative solitude, at least not before Jesus completed his earthly mission. Mary, though always a contemplative at heart, was not a nun but a mom, and she had to be busy doing whatever it took to ensure the welfare of her Son, just as her Son said he had to be about his Father’s business. We see in the Gospel for this feast (Mt. 2:13-23) that she didn’t have much time to dwell in idyllic peace and happiness with her divine Child, and Simeon’s prophecy did not take long for its fulfillment, at least its initial stages. Jesus, even as an infant, was a sign of contradiction, someone who would be opposed. Long before Jesus could even place a humanly rational act, Herod sought to kill Him.

So we make a leap liturgically from the celebration of the joy and glory of Christmas to the hardships that followed soon after. Mary and Joseph had to leave their home, had to leave even the Promised Land, fleeing to a foreign country to escape the merciless swords of Herod’s henchmen. But Mary, like her Son, was there to do the will of God, whether convenient or inconvenient, for in his will alone is peace, life, and salvation. It is interesting to notice in this Gospel how God respects the family hierarchy. Before Mary was married to Joseph and moved in with him, God spoke directly to her through the angel. After her marriage, God sent the angel to Joseph, the head of the household, with the instructions as to what had to be done. Though not the biological father of Jesus, St Joseph was still entrusted with the full responsibility of human fatherhood, and he exercised it in perfect obedience to the will of the Heavenly Father.

The angels also exist solely to do the will of God. Gabriel brought the glad tidings of the incarnation of God to Mary. Was he also the one who announced the good news to the shepherds? And was he also sent to St Joseph with the instructions about the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt? If so—and it is likely—it is interesting to see that he can go from profound rejoicing to severe and urgent warnings simply at the word of the Lord. I don’t think there are some angels predisposed to bring good news and some more suited to bringing bad news—they all simply do the will of God, whatever it is, whatever it requires. So again we make that liturgical leap—in only one day!—from “I bring tidings of great joy; a Savior is born” to “flee to Egypt, for Herod seeks to destroy the child.”

It is interesting to note that there’s another subtle clue in the text to indicate that Joseph is not the father of Jesus according to the flesh. When the angel spoke to him, he did not say, “Rise, take your wife and son to Egypt,” but rather, “Take the child and his mother.” He mentions the child first, which is unusual, unless the Child happens to be the Son of God, and then “his mother.” So Joseph is, in a sense, gently put in his place, somewhat outside the impenetrable intimacy of Mother and Son—which is beyond all human understanding or articulation—while still retaining his God-given authority as head of the Holy Family. The angel says the same thing when calling them out of Egypt back to Israel.

So they went, in the middle of the night, leaving their familiar surroundings, their relatives and friends, because this was the will of God. God seems to want to detach his chosen ones from their earthly and material ties in order to free them for total dedication and service to Himself. He called Abraham out of his homeland to show him a new place. He called Moses to bring his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and it has often happened in the history of the Church that the saints have had to depart from their familiar place to some unknown land or unfamiliar situation in order to do God’s will. We see a similar thing in the monastic tradition. Jesus said that he would bless a hundredfold those who would leave home and family and possessions for his sake and that of the Gospel. To enter a monastery we have to detach from family ties, and have to leave our former places of residence (sometimes even our native land), embarking on a spiritual journey that may be quite demanding. It is not for us to figure things out, still less to grumble or rebel like the Israelites in the desert—but rather like Mary and Joseph simply to get up and do what the Lord says, precisely because that is his will, and that is what we live to do.

What if Joseph had decided to reason with the angel, explaining how inconvenient and impractical it would be for them to leave right away, and what’s wrong with serving God in their own country and home, etc? Meanwhile, the mailed fists of Herod’s soldiers would be pounding on their door, and the angel would say: that’s what wrong with it—and salvation history would have come to an abrupt conclusion.

So let us follow the example of St Joseph and the Mother of God, who had no agenda, no preference but the will of the Lord, and who did not calculate how things might better work to their advantage, did not count the cost of obedience, but simply said yes, as Mary first did at the Annunciation.

We are still rejoicing in these holy days of the celebration of the birth of our Savior, but we do so with the constant readiness to hear the angel of the Lord tell us to get up and do whatever God’s will requires. For only in this obedience, this fidelity, this love of the Lord that transcends concern even for our own well-being, will we discover the transforming power of divine grace and reap the rewards promised to those who love and obey Him.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Christ is born! This day, said the angel, is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And so today, this day, we celebrate the mystery, not merely as a recalling of a distant historical event, but as present joy, a present revelation of the grace and love of God, a present re-entry into the great mystery of “God with us,” of God become man for our salvation. The grace of this mystery is communicated to us this day, whether or not we have visions of angels. For Christ is in our midst as the Coming One who has come, who brings to us the good news of salvation, the Gospel of joy.

Our prayer as we have been awaiting his coming is the prayer of the Prophet Isaiah: “O, that You would rend the heavens and come down…to make your name known” (64:1-2). We heard in yesterday’s Gospel that St Joseph would give Him that name which would be made known to all the nations: Jesus, which means, “the Lord is Savior.” That’s how He was announced by the angel: this day is born to you a Savior. Again the prophet cries: “Shower, O heavens, from above, let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth…” (45:8). And the psalmist too joins in praise of the Messiah: “May He be like rain that falls on the grass, like showers that water the earth!” (71/72:6). The Lord has come and He has filled the world with grace, yet coming in what seemed to be a quite ordinary, everyday manner. No one is particularly astounded by a shower of rain, or the birth of a baby—happens all the time. Yet as the rain permeates the thirsty ground, the grace of the incarnation of the Son of God renews and transfigures all creation in a hidden manner. He entered this world as a little child, of whom very few took any notice. Yet the world would never be the same again, from that day to all eternity.

Let’s go to the place where a few chosen ones did take notice. It was a field on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and shepherds were keeping the night watch over their flock. It was a winter night like many others, cold and clear, and they probably were wishing they were in their own homes before a hospitable fire, with a warm drink in their hands. Suddenly, the black night was wildly illuminated, and they turned this way and that, stunned and confused and, as the Scripture literally says, they “feared a great fear.” What was happening? They saw a radiant figure descend from Heaven—it was the Angel of the Lord! Would they be allowed to live after having seen him with their own eyes? And that light—that shimmering, sparkling light, casting colors all around that they had never seen before, never imagined possible—it could only be the glory of the Lord shining around them! They were in an ecstasy of terror, wonder, and exhilaration.

Then the heavenly apparition spoke: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” The shepherds were utterly astonished, beside themselves in awe and wonder. If someone said they would see greater things they wouldn’t have believed it. Yet suddenly, they saw a greater thing. Not only one heavenly messenger, but a whole multitude appeared to them! Truly the heavens were torn open to manifest the entire angelic choir, who praised God saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!”

The shepherds then did two things: they sought the face of God and they became evangelists. First they said: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see the thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They could hardly have been clear on the fact that it was God Himself in human form that they were about to see, though they did hear from the angel that a Savior was born. They were still reeling from their overwhelming experience of the glory of God, so all they could say was, “let us see this thing that has happened”—whatever it is, we have to see it! Then they found Him, knew Him by the sign the angel said to seek: a baby lying in a manger. The epitome of both powerlessness and poverty: this is Christ the Lord.

So then they became evangelists. Actually, the angel was the primary evangelist. The angel (angelos, “messenger”), brought good news (evangelizomai, literally, “gave a good message,” same root as evangelion, gospel). But when the shepherds found Him whom they were seeking, they “made known [to Mary and Joseph] the saying which had been told them concerning this child.” Perhaps you could say they were “preaching to the choir” at this point, but when they left, they went on glorifying and praising God and telling anyone who would listen all that they had seen and heard.

Perhaps the shepherds went away singing the glorious canticle of the Prophet Zephaniah: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord has taken away the judgments against you… The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion… the Lord your God is in your midst… He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will renew you in his love; He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. ‘I will remove disaster from you [says the Lord], so that you will not bear reproach for it… I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together… when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ says the Lord” (3:14-20).

What exactly is He restoring? In the original context it was the material riches and glory and the esteem of the nations that the Israelites had lost after their exile to Babylon. But for us, as it says in one of our liturgical texts, Christ is born to restore our long-lost likeness to God—the image in which we were created, but which we had disfigured or obscured by sin. We have been exiled from Paradise, but in the liturgy of this feast we sing: “As for me, I am returning to the bliss of Paradise, from which I had been banished by disobedience.”

Finally, I came across another text, a hymn to Our Lady, which concisely summarizes the mystical essence of this feast: “Angels were seized with amazement and mankind fell silent in awe at your birthgiving, O Mother of God.” This is a feast of both worshiping Him in silent awe and in singing praise with angelic amazement and joy.

Come, then, let us adore Him silently in our times of solitary contemplation, and for now let us, with the Prophet Zephaniah, sing aloud and rejoice with all our hearts. For the Lord is in our midst. Let us glorify Him with thanksgiving for the immeasurable price He paid to take away the judgment against us, to change our shame into praise. Who else would have done this for us sinners? Who else could have done it? Who is like God? A God so powerful He became a baby in a manger! A God so pure He bore all our filth in his own body on the Cross! A God so righteous He took away the just judgments against us and turned our shame into praise! Do you want to know what God is like?—that is what God is like!

Christ has come to restore our long-lost likeness to God, so that we can claim the heavenly Paradise as our homeland and sing to Him with the angels forever. Christ is born!

The Fullness of Time

This Sunday is the Sunday of the Genealogy of Jesus (Gospel: Mt. 1:1-25), the immediate preparation for the celebration of his nativity. It’s all the more immediate this year, since the last Sunday of Advent happens to fall on Christmas Eve. The long list of names of Old Testament figures may seem to be obscure or even irrelevant to many, but its purpose is important. Jesus must be known to be both true God and true Man. When St John says, “the Word was God,” and when Christ says, “I and the Father are one,” it is clear that He is true God. But the testimony of the genealogy says that Jesus is also true man, that He has a lineage just like any other human being, that He was born into the human family from a woman, just like the rest of us—even though his conception and birth were miraculous, unlike ours, but that part testifies to his being true God, which we are not. We see a subtle hint of this in the genealogy itself. The whole list is in the form of “so-and-so was the father of so-and-so”—until we get to St Joseph. It doesn’t say he was the father of anybody. The format changes in his case. It says: “Joseph was the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” So here we have another testimony of the divinity and humanity of Christ: He had no human father (divinity), but He did have a human mother (humanity).

At the end of the genealogy, St Matthew divides salvation history into three stages: the time of the patriarchs and judges (from Abraham to David), the time of the kings (from David to the Babylonian exile), and the time of restoration (post-exilic Judaism to the coming of the Messiah). He begins the time of the kings with David and not Saul, even though Saul was the first king. Why is that? And why doesn’t Saul appear in the genealogy? As to the second question, the genealogy is only in the line of Judah, and Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin. He began no dynasty, for he and his son Jonathan, the heir apparent, both died in the battle of Mount Gilboa. But Saul was rejected for a more important reason: his disobedience and infidelity. David, despite his sins, was a man after God’s own heart, who loved the Lord and strove to do his will. It was he whom God accepted to begin the dynasty of kings, and it was in his line, that of Judah, that Jesus the Messiah would be born.

It is clear from St Matthew’s arrangement of the genealogy into three sets of fourteen generations, that once these had been completed, the fullness of time, the kairos, the moment of unprecedented divine intervention into human history, had come.

So St Paul wrote to the Galatians: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” But weren’t all human beings children of God even before the coming of Christ? Wasn’t God our Father even before He sent his Son as man? Scripture and theology answer: no. If in any sense God could have been considered the Father of human beings before the coming of Christ, it could only have been so in virtue of the Incarnation yet to be manifested. Just because God created us doesn’t mean He is our Father. He created mice and mushrooms, too, but He is not their Father.

St Paul makes this clear, again in Galatians. In the passage just quoted, he said that God sent forth his Son, born of woman, so that we could be adopted as children of God. This means, a) before He sent his Son we were not children of God, and b) the purpose of God sending his Son was to make it possible for us to become children of God (see John 1:11-12—“…his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”). We aren’t God’s children by nature; that’s why Paul says we had to be adopted, and that only happens through the mediation of Christ. Many people blithely assume that we are all indiscriminately and automatically children of God, as if sheer existence somehow elevates us to this incredible status. It is rather a priceless gift, one that was given at an immeasurably high personal cost: the incarnation, death and resurrection of the only-begotten Son of God.

St Paul then says: the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring, not in the plural but in the singular, that is, referring specifically to Christ. So it is only in Christ that we are children of God and hence inheritors of the promises made to Abraham, our father in faith. Paul concludes by saying that only if we are in Christ are we Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Whoever is saved is saved by Christ; whoever is entitled to call God “Father” is entitled only through union with the Son. If there are among the saved those who do not explicitly confess faith in Christ—and I think we ought to acknowledge that there must be—it is only through some mystery of divine love and providence that has not been revealed to us. But in any case it is always and only through Christ, the only Savior, that anyone is saved. So we see why St Matthew so carefully presents the genealogy, showing how it leads to the incarnation of the Son of God at the fullness of time, for only in Christ are we children of God and thus eligible to be received into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us look briefly now at the second part of this Gospel, the angelic revelation of the incarnation to St Joseph. I will not try to enter his psychological or emotional state here—though that can be fruitful for meditation—but just to look at the essential point. Mary was betrothed to him, and betrothal at that time had the legal force of marriage. She was pregnant, and Joseph knew he was not the father, for his relationship with her was free from sexual intercourse. Being faithful to the word and will of God as he knew it in the Scriptures, he had to leave her, for this was God’s law, and even though he loved his betrothed very much, He loved God more and was committed to his will.

But the angel clarified God’s will, revealing the utter uniqueness of this situation in words that the humble carpenter could not fully have comprehended: “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Surely he would reflect on those few words for years to come. But whether or not he comprehended the incomprehensible, he knew how to obey. “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” He could name the child and do whatever else God told him to do. The evangelist then reminds us of the fulfillment of a messianic prophecy about a virginal conception and the birth of a child who would be Emmanuel, God with us. In the original text, the child to be born in the time of the Prophet Isaiah would carry the name of Emmanuel, as a sign, a reminder that God is always with his people. But the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy—the Child of Mary—is Emmanuel, is God with us in person. No prophecy, no reminder: God Himself is with us in Jesus, the Son of Mary.

Finally, a brief note on a disputed word—one which is put forth by some as evidence against Mary’s perpetual virginity. The word is “until.” The text says that Joseph had no intercourse with Mary until she had borne a son. They assume (wrongly) that this implies that the chaste couple had intercourse after she had borne a son. If these events had occurred in America, and if the evangelist’s culture and language were English, they might have a point. But this “until” is a semitic idiom, which does not imply that the situation changes afterwards. For example, in the book of Genesis, God says to Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and I will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you” (28:15). Does that mean that God is going to leave him after he brings him back to the land? Of course not! And has anyone, anywhere, ever tried to make a case that God was going to leave him, because of that word “until”? No. Why? Because the idiom is understood. Why then should we not understand it in the case of Mary and Joseph? (“Brothers” and “sisters” are also semitic idioms for relatives in general, in case a similar question occurs to you later!) The Church in her wisdom reveals the most profound meaning of the texts of Scripture.

Let us now, as there is only a brief time between us and the celebration of Christ’s nativity, reflect on these mysteries: the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the gift of adoption as children of God through Him, the grace of the Holy Spirit and the angelic intervention in the lives of Mary and Joseph. And let us follow the example of St Joseph, who even without full knowledge, obeyed the word of God and assisted personally in the manifestation of the Savior to the world: “he did as the Lord commanded him… he called his name Jesus.”

Fruit that Befits Repentance

Why am I writing about repentance at this late stage of Advent? For three reasons. One is that this time of year is still a penitential season in the Byzantine tradition, notwithstanding the several feasts and mitigations of the fast that make it “lighter” than the Great Fast of Lent. As far as I am aware, the penitential character of Advent in the Latin rite has been quietly suppressed since Vatican II, in favor of a spirit of prayerful waiting—which is important, but one approach need not (and should not) exclude the other.

The second reason is because the one who insisted that we bear fruit that befits repentance was St John the Baptizer, the Forerunner of Christ, who plays a prominent spiritual role in our Advent spiritual life as one who “prepares the way of the Lord.” If we are spiritually unprepared, our Christian Christmas will bring us no more benefit than the superficial good cheer of the secular one. The third reason, a more general one, is that there is virtually no time in which repentance is inappropriate. Repentance isn’t only about focusing on sin, confession, and penitential practices. It is fundamentally about making sure that the direction of our life—our thoughts, emotions, words, behavior—is toward Christ and in accord with his word. Repentance is a way of life, a constant turning away from what is not of God to what is.

Let’s get back to the Forerunner. No one could pull the wool over his eyes. He could easily see through the hypocrisy, ostentation, and sham righteousness of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had decided to come to him for baptism—lest they seem “out of the loop” of the great religious revival John had inaugurated. They were the religious “professionals” after all! But St John’s laser-like spiritual vision immediately assessed their interior condition, so he cried out: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).

“We have Abraham as our father,” is a kind of Jewish “once saved, always saved” mentality. They erroneously thought that simply being a blood-member of the chosen people was sufficient for righteousness, just as some Christians erroneously think that a single profession of faith is sufficient for salvation, regardless of the way one lives one’s life. But John makes two essential things perfectly clear: you must repent, and you must prove that your repentance is genuine by living accordingly.

John knew that the interest of the Pharisees in his baptism was merely formal and external. They had to publicly manifest their piety if they were to keep up appearances as the spiritual authorities of Israel. But John was aware that they had no intention to make any significant changes in their attitudes or behavior, and he clearly implied that their “repentance” was phony by saying: “Bear fruit that befits repentance… every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

What kind of fruit befits repentance? For starters, go to Galatians 5:22-23 for the fruit of the Spirit. This is essential for any Christian life. Fruit that befits repentance is any sort of virtuous behavior that manifests one’s change of heart, one’s change of direction toward God and the will of God. It proves that one’s Christianity is more than a veneer of Bible jargon or of holier-than-thou snobbery. It is faith working through love, practicing what you preach, living what you believe, manifesting your faith by your works (James 2:18), in short, proving that your repentance is genuine by not continuing in your former sin—let alone justifying it, as people tend to do when they’ve given up the struggle.

So as Christmas approaches, let us examine the extent to which our deeds reflect what we believe and profess. Let us realize that bearing good fruit is not an option if one wishes to “flee from the wrath to come,” to avoid being cut down like a dried-up tree, good for nothing but firewood. In bearing love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit, we will have gifts to bring to the newborn King, and He will bless us, seeing that we have done what is true and have come to the Light, that it may clearly be seen that our deeds have been done in God (see John 3:21).

Freddie the Fox

About ten years ago I made a retreat at a monastery on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There were a number of marvelous views on the long, winding road that led back to Highway 1. I was in need of much solitude, and I was able to stay in a hermitage, so my days were spent in the presence of God and his great ocean—and Freddie the fox.

I think it was one or two days into my retreat when I first met him. Initially he was little more than a pair of watchful eyes in the dusk, which could have been almost anything. But I became curious and stood a bit out of the way, behind the sliding glass door of the hermitage. As he cautiously drew nearer, I discovered, to my delight, that my new friend was a fox. I named him Freddie, if for no other reason than the alliteration. Occasionally his girlfriend showed up, too, and I named her Georgette, for no particular reason at all.

Foxes (or at least Freddie, since I know little about foxes in general) have a curious way of approaching what I assumed was a hoped-for handout. He came a few steps toward the hermitage, then seemed frightened and ran back. Then a few steps closer, then ran back—but not so far this time. I guess he was testing how safe he’d be with the new occupant of the place. I started leaving bits of food on the concrete step outside the door. Freddie would go through his ritual while I watched, partly hidden. He would approach, run away, come a little closer, run back a little way, come a little closer, till he finally came close enough to snatch his little snack and take it back to share it with Georgette (I didn’t see that, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was a gentleman, fox or no fox). Night by night, I was making myself a little more visible to him.

Finally, the great moment came. On the last evening of my retreat there was not merely a bit of food on the step, but a human creature holding a bit of food in his hand. Would Freddie go for it? I was quite excited to see what would happen. (Really, though, I did spend a little time in prayer on the retreat as well!) He began his ritual: approach, draw back, approach, draw back. Freddie got closer; he was taking a risk now. There was the food, but it was attached to a hand that was attached to something much bigger than he was. Closer, closer, snatch! He did it! Freddie took the food from my hand and ran off into the night, and I’m not sure which one of us was more satisfied as to the outcome of that little encounter.

Why am I telling this story? Well, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the relationship of Freddie to me is something like the relationship of many of us to God. We have a sort of instinctive sense that something good is being offered at the well-lit house and we know that we have to come out of the darkness to receive it. Only gradually do we realize that gifts are being placed before us, not randomly, but by Someone. Yet we don’t really know very well this extra-large Being who dwells there, so we’re not sure if we can trust Him. So we begin with a cautious approach—making sure we have a clear getaway path should things get too uncomfortable. But we haven’t received that which we truly seek, so we come a little closer, still afraid, still drawing back, though maybe not quite so much. After all, He hasn’t done anything to harm us, and He seems welcoming enough. It’s just that it’s all so new and strange to us, and we bear within us an inarticulate fear of the Unknown.

But we’re hungry, and there He is with the Bread of Life. So we come a little closer. Our little ritual of running toward and away from Him becomes wearisome—and certainly unfulfilling—and we finally draw near enough to hear Him say, “Come to Me, you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.” Is it worth the risk? Hopefully we decide that it is, and we begin to eat out of his hand. The analogy breaks down somewhat with Freddie taking the food back into the darkness, but who knows if he wouldn’t eventually have allowed himself to become domesticated and live in the light with his master on an ongoing basis? Once we come out of darkness into the Light, and eat from the Master’s hand, we are called to go on living in the Light, “that we might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life” (Luke 1:74-75).

The Lord wants us to approach Him with confidence, with love and trust, for He will provide all things for us unto everlasting life. Our simultaneous movements toward and away from Him will not enable us to achieve our goal, but will keep us in a kind of uneasy relationship, refusing the risk of the self-surrender in trust that alone will secure our happiness and fulfillment.

Walk toward the Light—in these days that Light shines in the Star over Beth-lehem, the “house of bread”—walk toward the outstretched Hand bearing the Bread of Life and the promise of salvation. Don’t turn back, even momentarily, but confidently approach Him of whom the psalmist spoke: “The eyes of all look hopefully to You, and You give them their food in due season; You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 144/145:15-16). Foxes have lairs but the Son of Man will give them a better place to lay their heads…

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