Sunday before the Nativity, December 20, 2015
Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1:1-15
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Here we are, just five days before Christmas. It’s the Sunday before. And there’s always a lot this time of year talking about the “true meaning of Christmas,” the “reason for the season,” “putting Christ back into Christmas,” “the War on Christmas,” etc. I’ve even seen billboards talking about this. And of course one sees those “Santa vs. Jesus” memes on Facebook. Some have Santa Claus kneeling down at the manger in Bethlehem.
And you know what I think about all that? It’s mostly just noise. It’s mostly just an attempt by well-meaning people to push back against the encroachment on a holy day by the commercialization, politicization, and trivialization of the world.
I get the sentiment. Really, I do. Many Christians feel surrounded, like everything in our world is conspiring to ruin, to cheapen the last truly good thing that we do in public together.
But I still think it’s mostly noise. Why?
It’s because almost all of it misses the actual meaning of Christmas. Almost all of it just wants to substitute one feel-good image for another. Yes, let’s put the baby Jesus back in there. Yes, let’s call this “Jesus’ birthday.” Yes, let’s sing about “peace on earth” and joy and happiness and family and togetherness. Okay, let’s do all those things.
But is anyone talking about death? Not really.
But, you see, death is what Christmas is really about. Death is the meaning lurking underneath everything else. Death is the reason why there is a Christmas. Death is the reason that He came.
Doesn’t that sound terrible? Stick with me here.
Yes, we love to see the baby Jesus. Yes, the angels sing “peace on earth” to the shepherds. Yes, okay, we can call this “Jesus’ birthday” as a kind of shorthand when teaching our children what this day is about. And yes, we can even point out that Santa Claus is not the purpose for this feast. But we still have to talk about death. And I think we should talk about it first when we talk about Christmas.
Why? It’s because of what the Gospel is actually about. The Gospel is the declaration of the coming of a new king, a king Who is coming to conquer His enemy. This is what the Greek word evangelion means, which we translate as Gospel. Yes, it means “good news,” but good news of what? The good news is the coming of a new king, a King Who is declaring war on His enemy and establishing a new kingdom. This is big news. This is good news. This is Gospel.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose feast would normally be today but got bumped to yesterday this year since this is the Sunday before Nativity—he understood all this. St. Ignatius was the second or third bishop of Antioch and a disciple of the Apostle John. Tradition also says that he met Jesus when he was a little child, that he was the child that Jesus took into the midst of the disciples when He said in Matthew 18 “unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Like I said, though, St. Ignatius understood what the Gospel is. He knew it was about the coming King Who was going to conquer His enemy and establish a new kingdom. When he wrote a letter to the Christians of Ephesus, he talked about the coming of this new kingdom. Here’s what he said:
Thus all magic was dissolved and every bond of wickedness vanished; ignorance was abolished and the old kingdom was destroyed, since God was becoming manifest in human form for the newness of eternal life; what had been prepared by God had its beginning. Hence everything was shaken together, for the abolition of death was being planned. (To the Ephesians 19:3)
“What had been prepared by God had its beginning”! That’s Christmas, brothers and sisters. Now all the preparation for so many centuries was coming into its fullness. Now all the people whom we heard about in last week’s Gospel reading and then both of this week’s Scriptural readings are mystically seeing the fulfillment of all their hopes. Now all that has been for so long hoped for and expected and longed for is finally having its beginning.
The King has been born. The King of Kings has come to this earth, and He is not just a little baby. He is not just “the reason for the season.” He is not just the gentle Savior. He is the conquering King. He is marching with His armies, the hosts of heaven and all the righteous and saintly and the martyrs, and He is invading the old kingdom. He is declaring war on the old kingdom of, as Ignatius says, “magic” and “ignorance” and the “bond[s] of wickedness.” They are being dissolved. They are being laid waste. Every old stone is being pulled down, and all the kingdoms of this world are coming to an end. “For the abolition of death was being planned.”
Because here, with this coming feast, the enemy is being openly confronted. The battle has begun. Nothing will ever be the same.
And who is this enemy? Who is the enemy of the God-man Himself? Who is the enemy who dares to stand against His might, the one who dares to claim the King’s people for himself and to steal away His inheritance?
That enemy is death, the “last enemy.” In I Corinthians 15:26, Paul speaks of this moment, when he says, “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”
The great triumph that we see at Pascha, when we shout out and sing that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death—that is the triumph that is now openly begun with Christmas.
What is the true meaning of Christmas? Christmas is a declaration of war against death. Christmas is the coming of the King Who will gather His people to Him, gather His armies to Him, and march on the powers of darkness, the hosts of wickedness and all evil, the demons and even Satan their damnable master.
And we know how this story goes. We know Who will win not just the battle but indeed even this cosmic war that was begun when Satan fell like lightning from heaven, which Jesus Himself, the Son of God, saw (Luke 10:18). And with the conquest of death, Satan loses all his power (Heb. 2:14), and he and his dark angels fall into damnation forever.
And so where does that leave us? For one thing, we need to know the true meaning of Christmas. Yes, it’s about the coming of Jesus. But what did He come here to do? He came here to confront and to destroy death itself. And we need to teach this meaning of Christmas to our children and to speak this truth to the world, to anyone who will listen. This is the great story, the story of Christmas.
And even more deeply, we have to ask how we ourselves enter into that story. You see, the Christmas story isn’t about us. But it can include us. We can be citizens of that new kingdom that is being established, the Kingdom of Life. And here is where we make that happen. Here is where we join the armies of the Lord of Hosts. Here is where we stand with Him and take our own stand against the last enemy, which is death.
Won’t you begin or begin again that commitment to stand with the Lord even now? This is such a beautiful time to begin once again. Let us not be nominal or “pretty good” Christians. Let us be warriors who fight with Him the war against death. That is how we celebrate Christmas.
To the coming King be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.