Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
As we come closer to the commemoration of the birth of Christ, we would do well to consider exactly what it is that we celebrate. By in large, the Christian world marks the birth of Jesus in the cave at Bethlehem, the “en-fleshing” of the Divine Word, “full of grace and truth in whom we have beheld His glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John 1:14)
The evangelical message in the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) tells of shepherds, songs of Angels, the visit of three wise men, and the profound silence of Mary, Joseph, and the holy Child. Everything seemed abuzz, but from the cave came a startling silence that was heard ‘round the world. The first disciples of the Lord, Mary and Joseph, said not a word but took it all in with the eyes of their hearts. Their language was not words but wonder. It is this mystic event that has given shape to our celebration of Christmas over the ages. The Kingdom of God arrived in our time and space! In the here and now, Divinity kissed humanity and the potential for a personal New Creation came within our poor reach. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob now had a face and a voice and a message of love. This is only one facet of the wonder that we call “Nativity.”
There is another meaning for our celebration of the Incarnate Word—every bit as weighty as the Bethlehem narrative. The same Kingdom of God that anchored itself in our time and space in the birth of the Messiah, has yet to be fulfilled, consummated, brought to completion. We are in fact living between two Kingdoms, the one “already”, the other “not yet” here. Grace came through the Word made Flesh in the present. The same Christ of God will come again in glory ushering in the future “When all things are subjected to him, and the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (I Corinthians 15:28) This is the eschatological, meaning of the Nativity.
Archimandrite Vasilios Papavassiliou notes: “Already in our present was the beginning of the end. The early Christians spoke of their living in “the last days,” not because they simply got it wrong but because they understood that the age to come had already broken through in this present age because Christ had already raised human nature into the heights of heaven by His Resurrection and promise of return in glory.”
Broader by far than the Western treatment of “The Four Last Things” (death, judgment, heaven, hell), the notion is clear that in the present moment of Christ’s Incarnation the future of humankind and the cosmos was exercising a magnetic pull upon the human heart. That pull of “the not yet” says to us: “There is still more, there is unfinished business, you are not yet everything you are called to be, you have life without end before you, your faith is forward looking, forward moving, therefore changing your present and changing you.”
This interior restlessness of the human heart, as it moves towards the Second Coming of the Lord, is the foundation for Christian hope. And it is Christian hope that is the dynamic of all history—personal and cosmic. St. John the Divine’s mystical insight into the future completion of the Kingdom was poetically expressed in the Book of Revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:1-3) The birth of Christ in history compels us to the future beyond the historic—through hope. We wait in joyful hope.
Perhaps more than any contemporary theologian, Rev. Jurgen Moltmann, still writing at 92 years of age, focuses on the absolute necessity for hope in the human heart. In his ground-breaking work, The Theology of Hope (1967), Moltmann writes: “That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the good of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”
Moltmann is of the deeply-held conviction that one cannot live without hope, that living without hope is to cease to live at all, that hell is hopelessness. Who cannot think of Dante Alighieri’s sobering inscription over the gates of hell in the Divine Comedy: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”—“Abandon hope all ye who enter.”
When we see things in ourselves that we know are “less than we can be”, personal deficits, habitual sins, persistent problems, failures we seem unable to overcome—our unspoken instinct is to hope, however wobbly. There is a voice inside us that tells us we can be better, we can overcome, we can change. When we look about our country and world and see discord, inhumanity, rampant violence, human abuse, bigotry, political chaos, and persecution, we catch ourselves “hoping for a better day.” Looking at the present makes us rebel against its disorder. Looking towards the future with hope saves us from the darkness of despair. We yearn inside for healing and wholeness, we believe somewhere in our darkness there is light for us and, as feeble as we are, we crawl towards it. This is the pull of hope upon us.
It is that future-directed, gut-unrestlessness that expects something better from ourselves and from our world, that drives us forward into the future in the face of the impossible and the unknown, in anticipation of personal transformation, a new way of living, a time not only of promise but of deep and abiding inner peace. Not a flight from the world, but a flight with the world “forward” is the fundamental dynamism of Christian hope in its renunciation of “things as they are.” It is hope pressing us forward. It is hope in the face of defeat. It is the dawn that comes after the painful darkness. This kind of hope is not so much concerned with the “meaning” of history in an intellectual sense, but rather with the question of genuine righteousness, spiritual integrity, and life lived in and for God, as God in Christ lived for us. Christian hope is not primarily an answer to some intellectual curiosity, but an answer to the human cry for love and life. It is the answer to our search for meaning. That answer was spoken to us by God Himself when, in the fullness of time, “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.” That future unraveling of the Kingdom “not yet” becomes another dimension of the birth of the Prince of Peace in the Kingdom already present among us. It is hope that gets us from one Kingdom to the blessed other. It is hope through which we come, at last, to understand the words of the Messiah of God: “My Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) Neither is ours.
So as we contemplate the historic moment of Bethlehem, the First Coming of the Lord among us, let us not lose sight of the call of the future, the Second Coming of the Christ, the one who will take everything up on the final day and present it to His Creator-Father “who knows the number of the stars and calls each by name.” (Psalm 147:4)
We are people who live in between the comings, reaching out to the Christ who gives us hope when we think we can barely hold on, when the shadows lengthen and the darkness comes, when the fever of life is over and our work is done. Test Him. Seek Him out. Allow Him into those hidden caverns and movements of your heart and be not afraid. The cave’s infant has become the Crucified and Risen Lord of history and that despite your foibles, failures and foul-ups, your mustard-seed amount of faith, can turn into hope, and your hope can open your heart to Divine transforming love. We have God’s Word on it. To Him be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen! Maranatha! Come, O Christ the Lord!
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