“THINK of shepherds who are made wise, think of priests who teach, of women who are delighted, when Gabriel teaches Mary joy, when Elisabeth has inside her own womb John kicking. Anna spreads the good news, Symeon opens his arms worshiping the great God inside a little infant, without despising what they see, but glorifying the greatness of His deity. His deity is revealed like light through hymens of glass, through the human body the divine power, transforming to the light of dawn those who have the eyes of their heart cleaned.” (St. Basil the Great, Oration on the Nativity, PG 31.1473)
In my graduate classes on liturgy and worship, a typical discussion that surfaces every year addresses the question of holiness. What does it mean to be holy? Is it a property solely of God? And when we acquire it, what happens to us? How do we become holy? My approach, radical to some, is not to quantify holiness — as if to say God has more than we do — but to understand holiness as a means of participating in the life of God, precisely in His purity and simplicity. When we live pure and simple lives, we imitate God and partake of His sanctification.
In the aforementioned reflection on the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Cappadocia father, St. Basil of Caesarea, offers us a glimpse of God’s holiness as it is manifested within the lives of several saintly individuals. Sanctification occurs when we enter into contact with the living God, when we imitate in faith the purity and simplicity of Christ, when we humbly and lovingly extend ourselves as He did to those around us. The simple shepherds who witnessed the angelic lauds in the fields are bestowed wisdom. The simplicity exhibited by the priests renders them effective teachers and leaders of the people. The Mother of God, in her meekness as a pure maiden from a loving family, is permeated with a joyfulness surpassing all human imagination. St. Elizabeth, Mary’s older first cousin, and the prophetess St. Anna, in the natural purity of their lives and in obedience to the will of God, likewise reflect the jubilant message of the Gospel in their interaction with others, kinsmen and strangers alike. And finally we come to St. Symeon, the God-receiver in the Temple, who in the purity of his life, witnesses the divinity of God when gazing upon the face of the 40-day-old innocent and helpless Babe. God is seen wondrously within the frailty and simplicity of the human body which He assumed for our salvation, but He can only be seen when our eyes and minds have been purged from all uncleanness and vain and incorrect thoughts.
When we have rid ourselves of the excess spiritual baggage we accumulate throughout our lives, sifting through the unnecessary and necessary components that define who we are and dispelling the excessive interferences and distractions of life, we place ourselves in a position of better clarity in order to receive sanctification. As St. Gregory the Theologian taught, all people desiring to be united with God must progress through three consecutive stages: κάθαρσις (“purification”) — φωτισμός (“illumination”) — θέωσις (“deification”), all three of which are typically applied to correspond to Holy Baptism, Holy Chrismation, and the Holy Eucharist. Minimizing the clouds allows us a clearer vision of the sun, and when we know where the sun finally is, we program our internal spiritual GPS to guide us toward its warmth and magnificence.
In the Scriptures, the Lord exhorts His people to “be holy to Me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be My own” (Leviticus 20:26). As God, the Lord is free from all passions and wants and concerns. Nothing limits Him, nothing controls Him, but He is perfectly the “One who is” (Exodus 3:14), the One who surpasses all human intelligibility and wisdom that can only bind Him. His existence He defines Himself as one of absolute purity and simplicity, and He makes the same expectations of us. Who can forget the scene in which the Lord wills to make a revelation to His prophet Elijah with regard to His identity, after Elijah complains that the people have abandoned God and seek to execute His prophets, including Himself?
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)
It is in the plainness of a mere whisper that God manifests the fullness of His presence, not in a violent act of nature. For an act of nature can convey the notion that God’s power is intertwined with the violence wreaked by the weather, a sort of animistic belief in which whimsical spirits live in nature and manifest their power at the expense of another’s fear or intimidation. This manifestation of God’s power in simplicity and vulnerability is rehashed by God Himself when He instructs St. Paul that “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even Christ looked favorably upon the innocent children of His day, assuring His listeners to “take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). Hence, purity and simplicity within children do not only reflect the image of the Holy Infant Jesus, who is the very face of God the Father, but both states of being allow human access to the divine, for the Lord welcomes those who struggle to imitate Him and to remain obedient to His will.
Every year it seems the feast of our Lord’s Nativity in the flesh becomes more and more secularized. Atheists would advocate a humanistic approach to the festival of lights, seeking to “demythologize” the festival by stripping it of its Christocentric character. Christmas, they would claim, is about the magnanimity of the human spirit to transcend the fallen world by loving others and graciously giving to them. Any notion of a miraculous birth is extraordinarily deceiving and plainly false, a religious fairy tale of sorts to entertain the imagination. Yet, any form of disconnect between altruism and its divine Source is tragic. Goodness, mercy, and compassion are not positive traits that originate within the heart of man. They are a Person, who is the very embodiment, the pinnacle, the apex of all holiness and truthfulness and goodness. To not see God in creation and in good works is to lose our very identity, as God-bearers upon whom is inscribed the divine image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:26). God is present among us and within us; He is “God in the midst of gods” (St. Symeon of Thessalonike, On the Sacred Liturgy § 94). When we see one another as altars upon whom the sacrifice of love must be offered, to use an expression popularized by St. John Chrysostom, we begin to truly respect our fellow human being with the honor due to them. Keeping Christ in Christmas helps us not only to connect our philanthropy with the ideal and model Philanthropos, but also to run the thread of holiness through every human heart and to bind a fragmented world together, for humanity that desires healing and redemption finds its rest and its ultimate solution in the incarnate God-Man, Jesus Christ.
Along the lines of secularization, Christmas has become mercilessly complicated and commercialized. In the fury of pre-holiday preparations (parties, shopping, cooking, and so forth), we often forget the reason for the season. We pay attention to the lights and the snow, to the earthquakes and fires, but we overlook the whisper, the voice of God speaking to our hearts because of all the other noise that we have become complacent to not only consider the norm but also to expect. A heart and mind filled with distractions and commotion cannot pay good attention to the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42); we are not wired well to multitask! What is needed is not to complement our altruism and our holiday activities with prayer and fasting. What is needed is to embrace the Lord first and to let our good works flow from the gift of this perpetual union with Him, to see God in all people, in every act of mercy, and in every activity. To put it another way, in order to minimize stress and begin living life, we need to maximize God and become dead to the illusions of joy around us, for true joy that outlasts is found only in the Lord.
My dear people, let us celebrate the simplest, purest Christmas ever this year. Let us focus all our efforts this season on mirroring and implementing in our lives the simplicity and purity of the life in Christ, for here is God present in the whisper, here is power, here is glory, here is cleansing, here is illumination, and here is sanctification and salvation. Nowhere else. Nowhere. A blessed Christmas to all!
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