Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
The Lord put Flesh on His Love
Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity
(Sunday of the Holy Ancestors of Christ)
21 December, 2008
Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40 ; Matthew 1:1-25

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Usually, people react to today’s Gospel reading by saying : “Why do we have to hear all those names every year ?” Of course, it is often one of the more difficult readings for deacons, because those names are very difficult names (especially for English-speakers). Just what are these fourteen generations of names in three instalments ? These fourteen generations of names in three instalments end with Saint Joseph the Betrothed (who was the foster-father of the Saviour, and not His biological father). In response to these details, and perceiving them as a complication, people will often ask : “What is the importance of this ?”

The importance has to do with the fact of the Promise. In the portion of the Epistle to the Hebrews which we have heard, the Apostle Paul is talking to us about all the ancestors of Christ who had lived by faith, beginning with Abraham. (Of course, the chapter does begin with Adam’s son Abel.) All these people lived in the hope of the fulfilment of the Promise of the Lord. The Promise of the Lord was a Saviour, a Redeemer. We now know that the Promise included Eternal Life. We have to say, also, that the Promise has to do with blessing. The whole Promise begins with Abraham, when the Lord God makes a covenant with the Patriarch. The Lord says to Abraham that his descendants are going to be a blessing on the earth (see 1 Moses 15 ; 17). People are generally taking the matter of descendants as purely physical descendants. However, we are counting not only physical descendancy, but also spiritual descendancy (or ancestry, depending on your perspective).

Last week, we paid attention to the spiritual ancestry of Christ. Today, a more physical ancestry is provided for us, as we are considering our whole life in the context of faith. We are speaking about life in faith, in hope and trust in God’s love. We are speaking about trust in His Promise of a Saviour, trust in His Promise of blessing. The people who are the descendants of Abraham are truly people who have lived by faith. All those persons whose names we have heard today are ancestors of Christ, spiritually speaking, and people who lived in faith in the fulfilment of the Promise, and trust in the Lord. Many of these people, just as the Apostle said, suffered a great deal for the sake of their confidence in the Lord, His love, and their hope in the fulfilment. In my opinion, it is most significant that the ancestors about whom we are hearing today are not the biological ancestors of the Saviour’s Birth, because our life in Christ is much more than just this.

It is true that we have more than one genealogy of our Saviour Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. One of them, which we have heard today, begins with Abraham. The other one begins with Adam and Eve (working backwards from Saint Joseph). The genealogies definitely demonstrate that our Saviour did not simply appear out of nowhere (physically speaking). We hear in pagan mythologies that some people appear out of nowhere in the manner of a deus ex machina, fix everything, and then disappear. This is not Who our Saviour is. Our Saviour is a Human Being (anthropos/chelovyek) who comes from an ancestry that we know. As is clearly stated in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we know that there is no direct, priestly ancestry, although such an ancestry may be recognised in some relatives of the Mother of God (such as Saint John the Forerunner and Baptist). We know where He was born. We know where He grew up. These are important details. These ancestors of Christ, these ancestors of Saint Joseph, are people who prepared the way for Christ by their love and their faithfulness. By their faithfulness, they made the time of the Incarnation possible.

We human beings have been created to be both physical (material) and spiritual. This is the Orthodox way. The Orthodox way is physical and spiritual. It really gets on my nerves over and over again, when people talk about the Orthodox Faith as being so “spiritual”. In doing so, they speak about our Faith as being disconnected from daily life, disconnected from bodies, disconnected from money, disconnected from cold weather, disconnected from everything. They seem to have the idea that human beings are some sort of bodiless spirits, somehow floating about in the ether. This is not Orthodoxy at all. This has nothing to do with our Faith. Our Faith is concerned with the love of God which has been concretely and physically manifested to us. It is concerned with God’s life-giving and saving love. If there is true spirituality amongst us, then it manifests itself in wholeness, in the unity of spiritual and physical. Actually, this was the characteristic Hebrew mentality. The spirit and the body are inseparable. They are together.

There is no-one anywhere in the Scriptures who says that at the end of our lives we are going to float off and be like angels. Our Lord never says that to us. Rather, the Apostle Paul says that when we come to the end of our lives, we will have spiritual bodies. That means for you and for me that what the Apostle says about spiritual bodies in the Resurrection will be quite similar to the post-Resurrection experiences of Christ by His apostles. Our Lord was touchable, although glorified. This is the difference. Human beings are a different order of creation from angels. Angels we will never be. (What parent does not want to compare his or her child to an angel, especially when asleep. I recently heard this expression : “A child is best when asleep, with the teeth to the wall”.) The comparison of a child (or even of an adult) with an angel is merely sentimental and affectionate. It has nothing to do with reality. The reality is that human beings are a different order of creation. We are embodied spirits as compared to angels, who are bodiless spirits. That is what distinguishes us. The Lord made us similar, but different. (When I was growing up, we used to say : “The same, only different”.)

The physical presence of our Saviour, the Incarnation that we are about to celebrate, is the most important thing that ever could have happened to us. His coming proves to us the love of the Lord. We always have to have tangible, concrete proof of everything. Another childhood saying that I remember is : “I am from Missouri. You have to show me”. Apparently, the stereotype of the inhabitants of the state of Missouri is that most of them are very skeptical, and they have to have visible, tangible proof of everything. As the saying goes : “We will believe it when we see it”. Human beings really are like that (not only the Missourians). We have to have concrete, tangible evidence of love. For instance, a man can say to his wife : “I love you”. She answers (maybe not always in so many words) : “Prove it. Show me”. That is why chocolates and flowers are so very popular. It goes in the other direction, too, because the husband has to have concrete demonstrations of his wife’s love for him, also. She does not usually do it in the same way. Stereotypically, it is through food. Still, we all need to have these concrete evidences of the love of the Lord for us, and His physical presence amongst us.

This is one of the main reasons for the Incarnation in the first place. This is why we Orthodox believers have to show to other people around us (who are nowadays usually unbelievers) concrete evidence of our hope in Jesus Christ by how we behave, by how we live, by the sorts of things we do, by the way we show that we really do love other people. No matter how much people exasperate us, no matter how much they put us to the test, we have to show them concretely that we do love them.

It is important to remember that everything that is done to the bishop in the middle of the Temple is done, as it were, to Christ, Himself. It is not done merely to dress up the bishop as if he were a Roman emperor standing in the middle of the Temple, and to inflate his pride. This has nothing to do with that man personally, because the same thing is done to every bishop everywhere in the world. The bishop could be the Patriarch of Moscow or of Georgia or of Serbia. The bishop could be any bishop in Vladivostok or Magadan. The same thing happens to every bishop everywhere in the world. Every bishop everywhere in the world is supposed to be re-presenting Christ, and he is to be bringing the blessing of Christ to the Church.

Another incarnational way in which the Lord continues to demonstrate His love for us is the Gospel, itself. The written word about the Saviour, the Lord’s Promise (and its fulfilment), those words that are spoken from the Gospel are words that are spoken as from the Saviour, Himself. Therefore, when we are responding in our hymns to what is read in the Gospel, we are responding in words such as “today” this is happening or “today” is the fulfilment of the Lord’s Promise. When the time of the Nativity will come, we will be saying : “Today, Christ is born”. When those words are proclaimed to us, it is Christ, Himself, coming to us, present with us. It is the Word giving us His words. When the deacon is standing in the middle of the Temple, in the same place where the bishop had stood earlier, we can perceive an identity between that Gospel and our Saviour, who is in our midst. The Gospel has traditionally been read always right in the middle of the Temple, in the middle of the people, in the middle of the flock of rational sheep. In the ancient architecture even from the sixth century (we have some examples that remain), the place for reading the Gospel is right in the middle, right beside where the bishop had been standing. The Gospel is proclaimed in our midst, and we know that Christ is in our midst.

All this concerns the Incarnation. The Word of God came down from heaven, took flesh, and is in our midst, in the middle of us. This has nothing to do with me (in my case, a rather eccentric person). It has all to do with Christ, not the bishop. This has to do with the Gospel of Christ, not with the deacon who proclaims it. However, we all have the responsibility to proclaim Christ, to present Christ, to re-present Christ. As the Lord put flesh on His love, it is important that we, ourselves, live out this love in concrete, tangible ways. The Orthodox way is whole. It is about unity. It is about oneness, and it is very, very material.

The Orthodox way is not detached spirituality. It is spiritual life in the body. That is why everything that we do in worshipping and in living is tangible. For example, we make the sign of the Cross on bread when we cut it. It is tangible. We bless all the ingredients of the bread before we make it. It is all tangible. To everything that we do in the Orthodox way, we bring the Lord’s blessing. It is all tangible. It is all material, and it is all to the glory of God, who created everything good.

There is much more that could be said about what we heard today. If these were the days of Saint John Chrysostom, this homily could continue for another hour-and-a-half or more. However, in the time of Saint John Chrysostom, homilies (which are sometimes called sermons — sermo in Latin means a talk) were in the form of informal dialogues. People would interrupt, debate and even argue during the sermon. This could possibly be done even now, because our Church’s tradition is alive ; but here in North America, people tend to be very silent out of habit during the homily, and no-one says “boo” about anything. Nevertheless, I am grateful to God that sometimes when I have asked a question during a homily, I have actually received an answer. Glory to God that our people can feel free in the Orthodox manner to do this.

Brothers and sisters, let us continue to remember the words of Saint Herman, the Elder and Wonder-worker of Alaska. Let us live by these words : “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all, and do His holy will”, and glorify the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.