Metropolitan Encyclical on the Feast of the Nativity

What shall we bring you, O Christ, Who for our sake, was born on earth as man? Every creature brings
 thanks to You: Angels their songs; the heavens a star;Wise Men gifts; Shepherds amazement; the earth a cave; the wilderness a Manger; but we – a Virgin Mother.”
Troparion from the Great Vespers of the Nativity

Dearly Beloved In The Lord,

During this Holy Season of Our Lord’s Incarnation we are invited to join the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem of Judea where we will find the King of Heaven and Earth. These three Wise Men traveled with the guidance of one star from the heavens which illumined their road to the place where the Christ was born: “and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the Christ was.” Matthew 2:8 – 9
For us, our guiding star is the Word of God, the Holy Gospel and all the Scriptures, in which the prophet wrote: “Your law is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105   A lamp to our feet so that we may walk in the light of righteousness all of our lives; a light upon the road which we are traveling in life so that we may not lose focus or let worldly cares take over.

Upon arriving at Bethlehem, the Magi came before the Holy Child and His Mother and knelt down to worship the Savior; they opened their treasures and offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Holy Communion and Confession are the means by which we, too, become “wise” by offering three gifts to the Christ Child. We offer Him as gold – the purity of our heart and our intentions to avoid every evil thought and weakness; instead of frankincense we offer Him a soul that burns with love for God and all humanity; and instead of myrrh we present Him with a lifestyle that is worthy of Christian Orthodox living; a lifestyle that is replete with His love and our acceptance of this gift through our deeds, prayers and repentance.

The Magi, having worshiped Christ, did not return on the same road which brought them to the Savior. They changed their route and returned “to their country by another way.” Matthew 2:12
It is very important that we, too, change our direction. As we celebrate these Holy Days with our families and loved ones, we should not return to the same path we have taken for so long. “By another way” let us change our lives. These days are full of grief, uncertainty and dispute; let us bring the spirit of the Lord which is full of peace, reconciliation and mercy for everyone. “By another way” let us not repeat our previous mistakes. “By another way” let us follow the true path of Christian virtues.

As we celebrate the Birth of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, my prayer is that we look deeply into our lives and flee all the bad habits that may be distracting us from a life in Christ, actions that may lead to spiritual death, and that we begin a new journey “by another way” that will bring us to life eternal.

CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!

With Love in the Incarnate Logos,

+ G E R A S I M O S
Metropolitan of San Francisco

Encyclical on the Feast of the Nativity

We have beheld His glory, glory as of the
only begotten Son of  the Father
.
John 1:14

To the Most Reverend Hierarchs, the Reverend Priests and Deacons, the Monks and Nuns, the Presidents and Members of the Parish Councils of the Greek Orthodox Communities, the Distinguished Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Day, Afternoon, and Church Schools, the Philoptochos Sisterhoods, the Youth, the Hellenic Organizations, and the entire Greek Orthodox Family in America

Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

On this holy feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gather in joyous celebration of the One who gives us rebirth and new life.  We offer praise to God for His abundant grace and for His divine plan for our redemption and salvation.  We do this in a manner that is filled with beauty, honor and glory, as this is what is due to the commemoration of a uniquely miraculous and wonderful event by which God became man and dwelt among us.

Through our celebration of the Nativity of Christ, our souls and minds are directed to contemplate the glory of His Incarnation. We hear and sing of this in the hymns of the feast.  We read the passages from the Holy Scriptures that tell of the angels giving glory to God in the highest and of the shepherds returning to their flocks glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen (Luke 2:14, 20).

This glory of the Incarnation revealed in the Nativity of Christ continued throughout His life and ministry as He took upon himself the challenges of our human condition.  His life in communion with God and humanity was an exaltation of what human life was intended to be.  Christ by word and deed showed that the chains of sin could be broken and the permanency of death overcome.  Through faith in Him and the salvation offered, we could know and experience a blessed life of peace and joy forever.

Further, the glory of the Incarnation was revealed through our Lord’s message of grace and truth. This was not a message that was dependent on the glory and might of military victory.  It was not associated with the earthly glory of political power.  The glory of the Incarnation was revealed through His love for us and through the Gospel of truth. He proclaimed, “I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).  In grace and truth He offered to us the love of God.  Into a world that was marred by animosity, greed, and pride, He brought a beautiful and enduring witness of divine love; and into a world burdened by deceit and vain pursuits, He proclaimed the truth and nature of our creation, our being, and our relationship with God.

Finally, the glory of the Incarnation is revealed in the transforming power of Jesus’ presence.  What was lost in the Fall of Adam and Eve is found in His Incarnation and its amazing consequences.  Through His appearance among us, our Lord leads us out of the darkness of evil and into the uncreated light of eternal truth.  As He dwells with us, He effects our transformation from sin to holiness.  As the Good Shepherd, He guides us from despair to hope.  As the Incarnate Word of God, He shows us the way to overcome our alienation so that we might live in full and eternal communion with Him. As our Master, He leads us out of the wilderness and into paradise.

Beloved Brothers and Sisters,

On the day of our Lord’s birth, the glory of His Incarnation was revealed to all of those who were blessed to witness this unique and transcendent act of God’s love.  In our commemoration of this holy day, may we all bear witness to the glory of the Incarnation through the witness of what our Lord has done for us and by His loving and saving presence in our midst.  May our thoughts and words express the glory and honor that belongs to the One who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).  And may our experience of the glory of His Incarnation lead us to tell everyone of what we have seen and heard so that all will come and worship Him.

With paternal love in Christ,

† DEMETRIOS
Archbishop of America

Do We Celebrate Christmas?

One of the frustrations we’ve had as parents over the years is with the issue of holidays at school. Claudia has written letters and/or spoken to teachers at the elementary schools every year. Mostly the conversations are around Halloween, but we do also mention that we don’t do the Santa Claus thing. Why we don’t do Santa is a different subject, we just don’t. These notes and conversations don’t do any good. The kids have still spent time coloring pictures of Jack O’ Lantern’s, black cats, and the like. They have learned a variety of secular Christmas songs, and learned about Santa and some of the way’s in which Christmas is celebrated in other cultures (as well as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc.). The biggest problem has been that what they are taught about Christmas is entirely secular. In other words, it has nothing to do with the actual Nativity of our Lord.

During the same time frame as our older children were experiencing this, we grew increasingly irritated with the fact that so many people around us were busily celebrating Christmas before Christmas even arrived. As AngloCatholics at the time, we knew full well that we were in Advent – a penitential season. By the time Christmas actually arrived, most people would remark that they were glad that Christmas was finally over. In actual fact, Christmas had only just arrived, and would be around for the next 12 days. This, too, was very irritating. Once we became Orthodox, with the Orthodox Church experiencing a 40 day fasting period known as the Winter Lent, the frustration only grew.

Finally, this year, in part after reading a blog entry by Molly Sabourin, it dawned on me that we were actually talking about two different holidays. One was the Christmas of the secular America. This holiday was frankly rooted in the Evangelical/Protestant side of America. Especially with Evangelicalism, the loss of any sense of penitential behavior, meant that Advent itself was lost. No longer did people prepare for the incarnation of God, and that allowed for the introduction of parties throughout the preparation period.

Over time, market forces took control of the “season,” spending massive amounts of dollars to convince people to do likewise. With the advent of “Santa Claus,” the Coca Cola marketing ploy, the new holiday began to take its final shape. The point of the holiday had become the giving and receiving of presents. What had been the giving of a few gifts in recognition of the gift that God gave us (or the gifts of the Magi, depending on how one views it), became a holiday to celebrate the giving of presents in and of itself. It has become a holiday that completes a month or more of over indulgence. It has, in many ways, become fairly Bacchanalian, which is antithetical to the Christian life.

The other holiday, our holiday, is known in the east as the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas being a Latin construct, the name doesn’t exist in the east). This is the feast of the ancient Church. Marked by a period of fasting beforehand, and followed by 12 days of feasting, we celebrate the great and awesome mystery of the Incarnation. Western Christianity has, in many ways, forgotten that the incarnation is more than a means of providing someone to hang on a cross. I could be mistaken, but I think it is this loss that has ultimately led to Christmas (vs. the Nativity) becoming a secular holiday.

So, from our perspective, we can just let this secular holiday continue on being a secular holiday. We’ll celebrate ours in our way. I think at times, that it would be better if we were on the old calendar, in which case Christmas would be on January 7th. It would drive the kids a bit nuts, but it would make things abundantly clear that we are, in fact, celebrating a different holiday.

The Flesh Profiteth Nothing…

One of the most controversial chapters in the whole of Scripture, when it comes to conversations between Evangelicals and any form of liturgical Christian – most notably Roman Catholics and Orthodox, is John 6. The chapter, while lengthy, larges relates Christ’s explaining to the gathering that in order to have eternal life one needs to eat his flesh and drink his blood. When this causes a great deal of scandal amongst his listeners, he merely reiterates the statement. This failure to clarify his statement has been understood throughout most of the history of the Church to be consistent with the received Tradition that the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in some way unknown to us, becomes the body and blood of our Lord during the Eucharist.

Since the time of the Reformation, and the advent of the notion of Sola Scriptura, this chapter came under scrutiny. Evangelical interpreters do not see this passage as clearly teaching the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. For the most part, it has never appeared that the Evangelical belief in a purely symbolic Eucharist was ever based on this chapter. Rather, this chapter has stood in the way of a symbolic interpretation. For the most part, the only defense against the historic interpretation of this passage has been reliance on passages elsewhere in the Gospels where Christ uses metaphoric language, and arguing that the same is going on here. Unfortunately, that is not terribly convincing, especially if you don’t accept the premise of Sola Scriptura. From a Sola Scriptura perspective, to be honest, the chapter is somewhat equivocal. If you couple the chapter with the accounts of the Last Supper (“take, eat, this is my body…”), then I would argue the evidence swings in favor of the real presence.

Needing one argument to close the books, if you will, what people turn to is one particular verse, where Jesus tells his disciples that the flesh profiteth nothing (John 6:63). They then take this to mean that Jesus’ flesh profits nothing, so clearly no reference to the real presence can be read into this passage. In fact, so the argument goes, this statement clearly contradicts a doctrine of the real presence.

There are some problems with this assertion, though. The first is that the teaching about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist dates back literally to the earliest days of the Church (For instance, in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch in 110, Justin Martyr in the 160’s, and, of course, St. Paul. A fuller list can be found here). Although I realize this does little to satisfy someone looking for Scriptural guidance, it speaks to the fact that an interpretation of Scripture that says the Eucharist is not the truly the body and blood of Christ is fairly novel, and not in the mainstream of Christian thought over the past 2,000 years. The only historical group I could find that denied the real presence before the reformation were the docetists that St. Ignatius of Antioch was referring to, who believed that Christ’s body was an illusion. It also testifies to the fact that John 6:63 has never been interpreted, prior to the recent past, in the way mentioned above. As a matter of fact, we can look to the Blessed Theophylact, and his interpretation of this passage:

As we have pointed out before, the false disciples are offended because they understand Jesus’ words in a fleshly, superficial manner. Therefore the Lord now explains: “If you wish to profit from My words, understand them in a spiritual manner. The flesh - that is understanding My words in a fleshly manner – profiteth nothing and is a stumbling block. But the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit - meaning, they are spiritual – and they are life, conveying nothing carnal and bestowing everlasting life.”

Blessed Theophylact was an 11th century bishop who summarized the Patristic understanding of the Gospels, St Paul’s Epistles, and the minor prophets. Much of his work is drawn on the writings of St. John Chrysostom, but not excluively so.

The other major problem with the interpretation noted above is that it frankly represents poor exegesis. Frequently when the flesh is mentioned in the New Testament, it is mentioned in a negative light. We read about how the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. We understand that to walk according to the flesh is to walk after sinful passions. On and on, throughout the New Testament, this message comes through loud and clear. When people, then, come upon John 6:63, it is no wonder they believe that Christ is teaching in the same vein. However, it is important to stop and ask to whose flesh is he referring? If he is referring to the unsanctified flesh of the crowd, then he is being consistent with the rest of the New Testament. If, on the other hand, he is referring to his flesh, would he be consistent with the rest of the New Testament?

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we see a very different picture. It is through Christ’s flesh that the wall of hostility between the Children of God and the Gentiles is broken down. It is through his flesh that God and mankind are reconciled. To assert that in John 6, Christ is stating that his own flesh is of no profit asserts that St. Paul is incorrect. In fact, it raises a significant question about what the point of the Incarnation really was. In addition, it raises some significant questions about the resurrection, both Christ’s and ours. If the flesh is and remains always unprofitable, why would we ever want to be in the flesh again after our death?

One of the challenges of Protestantism is the avoidance of lapsing into heresy. The road of Christianity over the past 2,000 years is littered with much heresy that came from people seeking to divine the will of God separate from the very Church that is the pillar and ground of truth. In this case, as I noted above, certain evangelicals appear to be approaching some form of docetism, or at the least, gnosticism.