The following sermon has been preached by me in several slightly different versions a number of times over the years. This is the one I preached on December 27, 2009.
For the Sunday after the Nativity
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!
There is much confusion in today’s world. A great many things which have been taken for granted for centuries are all being called into question in our time. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? All of these things, so well-known to our forefathers, are now all up for grabs in a kind of almost universal cultural delusion, where if we pretend long enough like we don’t know, then eventually we discover that we really have forgotten. This is a relatively new state of affairs.
What is not new, however, is delusion. Since the Fall of Adam, mankind has been living under a veil of darkness, unable to see what God created him to see. But in this holy season we are now experiencing, a light is shining into the darkness. The people that sat in darkness have seen a great light! That light is the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man.
If we look at the world around us, the Incarnation almost seems like a non sequitur. Most of us are so busy trying to survive or trying to earn more or achieve more or get more that it almost sounds silly simply even to say it. It sounds even more irrelevant to ask why God would become man. For many of us, God is so far away and so irrelevant in our lives that the idea that He would become flesh and dwell among us might sound a bit interesting but really has nothing to do with us.
But here’s something that’s undeniably true: every one of us is dying. Whether by the slow decay of years or in a sudden and unexpected tragedy, each of us will someday come to experience the awful reality of our mortality. And when that moment comes, will we have taken hold of the Incarnation of Christ and held on tight, or will we have brushed it off as a nice story without any real meaning or power in our lives? So let’s consider for a moment what the Incarnation means, not just in terms of a story, but in terms of real theology. And in the Orthodox Church, all theology is practical theology, or else it is useless.
The Son of God, Who existed eternally before all creation, saw that His beloved creation had turned away from Him, had cut itself off from the Source of life. He saw that we were dying—physically, psychologically, spiritually. He saw that we were suffering, that we were alienated from our Maker and from each other. He saw that we were broken. He saw that we were sick and infected with the disease of sin and death. He saw that we were enslaved to the Devil. And looking upon our desperate condition, He chose to enter into it.
He chose to become one of us. He’s not merely like us. He doesn’t simply look like us or act like us. His humanity is not a fancy illusion. It’s real. He was really conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and by the power of the Holy Spirit took flesh from her just as we all did from our own mothers. Into the womb of that pure and holy young woman entered the very God of the universe, not just taking up His dwelling in her, but making her humanity His own. He stepped into time and into history. He stepped into the genealogy of mankind. He not only has a mother, but grandparents. And great-grandparents. And cousins. And so on. He’s really human, and not just a human, but He has become the human, the new Adam, the new prototype and template for every human person. Adam himself was made according to Christ, and now in Christ is human destiny fully revealed.
It is for this reason that St. Stephen whom we heard about today in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles can go gladly to his death, because He is going to the Christ by Whom and for Whom he was created. It is for this reason that when we read about the horrifying crime of Herod in today’s Gospel, we too weep with Rachel, the voice lamenting in Ramah, whose children are no more. It is because the face of Christ is imprinted on every human person from the moment of their conception.
The world is confused about this question today, so much so that in this country, it is legal to kill a child even within his mother’s womb. And more than 1/5 of all babies conceived in America are killed by abortion. The place that should be the ultimate in safety, warmth and intimacy becomes a battlefield, where there is a war being waged against the most innocent, the most helpless, the most vulnerable. In Belgium, a proposed law would make it legal for a doctor to take the life of a child who is less than a year out of his mother’s womb if he is regarded as “deficient,” even if his parents do not consent. Why? How can we do this? It is because we no longer look at human beings, even in the womb, and see the Christ according to Whom they were made.
No matter what the law says, it is still a great and horrific evil to murder a child, whether in the womb or out of the womb. Yes, the world is confused about what it means to be human, at what moment a human being suddenly changes from a blob of cells at the whim of inconvenience into a “someone” who should be protected by the law. But we Christians cannot take what is legal to define what is moral. We cannot let the government interpret for us the Scriptures and the revelation of God. As Orthodox Christians, no matter what political or economic theories or parties we prefer, it is incumbent upon us to work hard to stop the ocean of blood that is flowing from the wombs of women, by voting, by loving, by speaking the truth, by giving up our own convenience to save lives, heal the wounded, soften the jaded, and reach out to the desperate.
Because we as Orthodox Christians believe that a person is a person, whether in the womb or out, it is deeply inconsistent and hypocritical for us to say that murder of a 2 year old should be illegal but that the murder of someone in the womb should be legal. It is no more a “private” decision than is the decision of a doctor in Belgium to kill your infant baby, whether you want him to or not. Murder is murder, and it affects everyone in the community. That we have made it “safe,” “clean,” and “convenient” should horrify us even more. We have sanitized infanticide.
There are those who say that illegalizing abortion again will drive it into dark alleys. That is an interesting image to me, because it is precisely in such dark alleys that murders are so often perpetrated. How does bringing murder out into broad daylight, making it into a “respectable” and profitable profession, make it any better? If what is in the womb is a human person, and our faith says clearly that it is, then abortion is murder. Period.
Now, you may say that science doesn’t really tell us when the sacredness of humanity becomes present in the womb. You may say that many people in our society all believe that it’s just fine to kill an unborn child. You may say that philosophy has no clear answers for the definition of human identity. You might be correct in saying all those things.
But what is absolutely clear is what the Orthodox Christian faith has to say about this. From the Scriptures to the Fathers to all the saints throughout the whole 2000 year history of the Church, Orthodox Christians have always believed that the moment of conception is the moment of the spark of humanity, the moment when the face of Christ is present in a new, wonderful and unrepeatable way. There is absolutely no ambiguity in our tradition in this matter. You either stand with the Church or you stand apart from it. This is deadly serious. If you are Orthodox, then you believe this. If you refuse to believe it, then you are deliberately and of your own free will departing from Orthodoxy.
Since we know from the unanimous Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church that abortion is a deadly sin against a helpless human person, what do we say to the young woman who is in desperation? What do we do for the woman who conceived a child without thinking, or because of violence? The answer is that we do everything we can. It is not enough merely to say that abortion is a sin. Though they may not know it or admit it, those who abort their children are harmed forever by what they do, and while many do it merely out of convenience, the desire to have sex without family, many also do it because they believe they have nowhere else to turn. It is a curious thing that abortion clinics are often built in the poorest and most desperate of neighborhoods. These people know their target market.
For those who are thinking about abortion out of desperation, there are many things we can do. First, we can offer to help raise the child, to help provide for what she needs to be a mother or perhaps help to provide a mother and father who cannot have their own children. We can offer to provide for counseling to such women, so they know their true options. If you don’t want to do any of those things, ask yourself how much human life is really worth. We can do so much for them. Only think for a moment. The only thing holding us back is lack of love.
For a woman contemplating abortion or even one who has had an abortion, or perhaps for the man or other people in her life who encouraged or threatened her into it, shall we turn the awful face of condemnation? Shall we yell at them, blow them up, ostracize them, disown them, gossip about them? Absolutely not. Those who have committed and suffered from abortion need to be healed. They need to be loved. They need to be made whole again through the grace and love of Jesus Christ that we are equipped to give them. But no one can be healed if we refuse to admit that they have been wounded.
This is the truth of the holy Orthodox faith, that it really does reach right into the intimate and concrete depths of our souls, and yes, even into the very womb. If we believe it, if we claim the name “Orthodox” for ourselves, then we have to live it. It is not enough merely to mind our own business and not egregiously hurt anyone else. We have to take positive, active steps to reach out to others, to touch their lives, to become that miraculous presence of Christ for them. There’s always somewhere we can start. Make a donation to a crisis pregnancy center. Tell that young woman you know who’s pregnant and doesn’t know where to turn that you’re really there for her, and then love her and help her no matter what anyone says or thinks.
Why should we do this? It is because of the awesome reality of Christmas, because the God before all the ages became a human person. I wonder what the Virgin Mary would say to us if we told her that what was in her womb didn’t get full human rights until after she gave birth! Or in Belgium, it would be another 12 months! If it is true that Jesus Christ is fully human from the moment of the Annunciation, then we who were created according to Him as our template, according to the image of the invisible God, we are also fully human from that same moment, that holy miracle of conception, when God reaches into the intimacy of a man and woman and undertakes creation all over again. It’s the same for us as it is for Jesus.
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is all around us, most especially and clearly in those who are baptized and chrismated as Orthodox Christians, those who partake of His Body and Blood and are adopted members of His family. The Lord told us that whatever we do to the least of His children, we are doing it to Him. If we help the poor man, we are helping Christ. If we comfort the desperate, we are ministering to Christ. If we save the life of an innocent child, we are giving to Christ. The same is also true if we hate, ignore, oppress, gossip about, sneer at, or kill. We are doing it to Christ.
In this holy and blessed season where we are drawn by the Church to contemplate the birth of our Saviour, the God-man Jesus Christ, let us also be drawn to see and to contemplate the intimate connection between Him and His creation. He created us, like a poet dreaming beautiful lines of holy poetry to make into persons, all reflecting something of Himself. But even more deeply than that, He became one of us. He bridged the gulf between the Creator and the creation, becoming part of His creation. And in doing so, He imparted to every human being, from the split second of their conception, the awesome dignity and majesty of being the children of God.
Let us therefore honor and worship Him, let us draw ever closer to Him, by becoming conduits of real, self-sacrificial love and grace for every person with whom we share this Earth, most especially the truly vulnerable and helpless.
To the Incarnate God-man, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.