Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Good morning Prayer Team!
I wonder if there was a moment when the shepherds, after all that they had heard and seen, sat down and said to themselves “Wait, we’re still just shepherds.” Maybe they even had a moment of disappointment that their good “spiritual” fortune didn’t translate into a change in financial fortune. Yes, after this miraculous experience of hearing angels and looking with their very own eyes on the Son of God now appearing in the flesh, they were still shepherds. They still had to return to the lonely and dangerous job of watching their flocks. They didn’t move up the social ladder in society. They “returned” to their jobs as shepherds and materially, nothing changed.
And yet they were changed for the experience. For they had seen God. They had had an experience of God. And as they returned to their flocks, they were glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen. They were not lamenting to God why their material fortunes had not changed. They were praising God because their spiritual fortunes had changed. They were materially poor and that didn’t change. They were spiritually poor and now they were spiritually rich.
Becoming a Christian does not change ones socio-economic status. One can pray and have a profound experience of God and still remain poor, or sick, or unpopular, or any other undesirable status. Christians and non-Christians are just as likely to be a victim of a terrorist attack, or get struck by lightning, or catch a cold or have cancer. Having Christ doesn’t make us immune to these things. Faith alone does not cure disease, that’s why God gave people the talent to be doctors and nurses.
So, what does faith do? First, it gives us a destination. Faith in Christ focuses us for eternal life, not just life on earth. So, when life on earth gets difficult or disappointing, the person of faith consoles himself with the thought that this earthly life and its successes and failures are fleeting in the span on eternal life. The person of faith doesn’t get too high on life’s successes or low on its failures. The person of faith uses the tools of the faith—The Fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control-Galatians 5:22-23), gratitude, service, prayer, scripture, worship, sacraments—to arm one’s soul with the tools to overcome adversity, pain, disappointment and failure. I firmly believe that having faith does not make one immune to life’s disappointments, but gives us the strength to endure and overcome them, because faith focuses me on the forever, not the temporary.
Does my faith affect my material status? Yes, in a way it does. If I recognize a God-given talent, and I ask the Lord to help me develop that talent, and if I try to walk hand-in-hand with the Lord in using my talent, and that talent leads to a job that helps put food on my table and a roof over my head, then faith does in some way affect my material blessings as well. This is why when one is very materially blessed, for example an athlete who makes millions of dollars, it affords him an opportunity to make a witness for Christ, giving glory to God who has endowed him with athletic talents. And even if one isn’t a millionaire, giving back to God from what He first gave us, offering gifts from His own gifts, is an important and crucial part of the Christian life. Whether you call it stewardship or tithing or just plain gratitude, giving back to God is something we should do generously and joyfully.
Moving back to the feast of Christmas, now only a few days away, what is going to change in your life after Christmas this year? I wonder the same thing after each year’s Lenten journey. Does anything change just because we’ve sung some carols, put up decorations and heard the Christmas story yet again? I won’t be any richer the day after Christmas. In fact when I tally up the credit card for the gifts I’ve bought for other people, there is a good chance I will be materially poorer. Christmas won’t change the house I live in, or my son’s grade in math.
Like the shepherds “returned,” once Christmas is over, our house will “return” to normal when we take the decorations down, our son will “return” to school, we’ll “return” to work after a few days off and life will look almost exactly like it does today in a few weeks when all of this is over. If this is so, why celebrate Christmas at all? And, does it have to be like this?
One of the reasons why we celebrate feasts like the Nativity on a yearly basis is to remember what the Lord did for us. As we get older, hopefully we come to a deeper understanding of what the Nativity really means. Your participation in reading these reflections is hopefully leading you to a deeper understanding of not only the Nativity but of the Christian faith. My writing them is helping me do that. As I ponder on the shepherds “returning” to their flocks and their “hum-drum” lives, but profoundly changed for the experience, I am thinking of ways that I can let my Christian faith change my life, how can I “return glorifying and praising God” once Christmas has passed. In some sense, today’s verse is the most important verse of the Nativity scriptures, because if we do not allow the experience of God to change us, then we are merely going through yearly rituals throughout our lives in a way that is almost pointless. The endpoint of our Christian life is supposed to be an entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. So yearly milestones of holidays and even daily mileposts are supposed to be occasions when we peel back another layer of God’s mysteries, promises and beauty, so that we come to a deeper understanding of God and so that we “return glorifying and praising God” on an ever deepening level.
The shepherds were still shepherds after their encounter with Christ. But they had changed. They heard the angels, they went with haste to find Christ, they told others what they had experienced. They demonstrated faith, and faith brought them joy, and joy is what led them to glorify and praise God with happiness and purpose, even as they “returned” to being shepherds.
We must seek to do the same—we must hear the message, we must “go” and be “do-ers” and not just hearers, and we must be encouragers. When we do these things, we will find not only faith but joy. And joy is what will help us glorify and praise God with happiness and purpose, even as we “return” each day to the material challenges we all face.
Direct my steps according to Your teaching and let no lawlessness rule over me. Ransom me from the slander of men, and I will keep Your commandments. Make Your face shine upon Your servant and teach me Your ordinances. Let my mouth be filled with Your praise, O Lord, that I may sing of Your glory and of Your magnificence all the day long. (Prayer from the Royal Hours of Nativity, Trans. Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
“Return” with joy to work, school, home and whatever else you “return” to today!
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The Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) is an official agency of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. OCN offers videos, podcasts, blogs and music, to enhance Orthodox Christian life. The Prayer Team is a daily devotion written by Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis, the parish priest at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, Florida. Devotions include a verse from scripture, a commentary from Fr. Stavros, and a short prayer that he writes to match the topic.
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