Dear brothers and sisters,
In these days, we officially come to the conclusion of our jubilee celebration for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Eparchy of Parma by Pope Paul VI in February 1969. It is a time to be grateful for all that our Lord has given us, as well as a time to reflect on the direction we will take in our eparchy. I have mentioned these ideas in my pastoral letters, both at the beginning of the jubilee year in January and at the beginning of the church year in September.
In these days, we also celebrate the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the expression of God’s grace. God the Father again offers us his love through his Son in the Holy Spirit. The mission of the church is to proclaim this joyful news to all people and to encourage each one of us to live our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son, who was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. He became one of us, he walked among us, and he walks alongside us still.
Our Byzantine liturgy offers us the liturgical texts that reveal to us the true meaning of Christmas, preceded by the preparatory period of 40 days of fasting and prayer, called the Philip’s Fast (Filipovka). A few texts in this pre-festive season help to bring forth the deeper meaning of this liturgical season and, in this way, help us to understand the mystery of Christ’s birth. The stichera from Matins for the Pre-Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord for Dec. 20 is one example. It summarizes our profession of faith in Jesus Christ, who is at the center of our faith and of our life. It is a very profound and beautiful text that was composed with passages from the Word of God, which is the source of our Christian life. It is a stichera that we sing but, more importantly, it is the stichera that we are supposed to live in our personal lives and in our families. I offer you some thoughts that are in my heart for your reflection, because they render the true meaning of this feast day.
We sing the following: “Make ready, cave, for the ewe lamb comes, bearing Christ in her womb. Receive, manger, Him Who by a Word has released the dwellers of earth from lawlessness. Shepherds, abiding in the fields, bear witness to the fearful wonder; Magi from Persia, offer to the King, gold, myrrh, and frankincense, for the Lord has appeared from a Virgin Mother, and she, bending over Him as a handmaiden, worshiped Him as He lay in her arms, saying to Him: How were You sown as seed in me? How have You grown within me, my Deliverer and my God?”
As in other sticheras, we find here not only persons as the protagonists of the story, but objects as examples and figures of different realities. What do the persons or the objects in this text truly represent: the cave, the manger, the shepherds, the magi, and the Theotokos, who is called “the ewe lamb” and “Virgin Mother”?
This stichera paraphrases passages from the gospels of Luke (cf. Lk 2:1-20) and Matthew (cf. Mt 2:1-12) and includes symbolism that is worthy to consider.
Let’s take a look at the cave that is being addressed in the second person, “Make ready, cave.” In the original Greek, these words mean to “get ready with reverence” or to “get ready appropriately.” The message to the cave to “get ready” and to prepare, is the same message that is given to the church and to us. We, too, must “get ready.” To receive whom? To receive Christ, the Lamb, who is brought by his Mother, the ewe lamb, the same words used to refer to Mary in the sticheras of Great and Holy Week.
Every Christian is supposed to get ready in the proper way, with a good confession, before receiving the Holy Gifts — the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy. Let this phrase resonate in our heart: “Make ready, prepare yourself.”
And then let us ask ourselves: How did we prepare for the feast of the Nativity of our Lord? How do we prepare for receiving the Holy Eucharist during the year? When was the last time we went to confession?
If we want to receive the real Christ in the Eucharist every Sunday, we should go to holy confession at least once a month. Otherwise, we are receiving the Holy Gifts unworthily and we are risking our salvation. When we feel that we are not in the grace of receiving Holy Communion because we did not forgive someone, or we are holding grudges, or living adulterously, or because of some other serious sin, then it is better not to receive Holy Communion, to stay in the pew, and then to ask the priest to hear our confession. This, too, is the real preparation of the cave for the coming of Christ, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church.
The image of the manger, as we know from iconography, symbolizes the tomb, the sarcophagus, and foretells the death of Jesus. The shepherds, who stay overnight on the fields in seclusion, are challenged to be the witnesses, to move from isolation to community. The magi are paralleled with the myrrh-bearing women. They bring the gifts to the One, who one day will be received by another cave, by another manger: his tomb.
Just as the image of the cave, which represents the church, must prepare and “get ready,” so do we, this Christmas and each day of our Christian life, need to be ready. For whom or for what? To worthily receive Christ and to witness to him with reverence, not only to ourselves but also to others.
This is where I want to turn your attention: Christmas has become the subject in this world to profane celebration. It has become very pagan and it is the subject of business, not only in consumer society but at its core. Let us not forget that we are celebrating Christ and him alone. We should never forget that the most valuable gift for Christians is Christ himself.
The message is clear. We must witness Christ and live and act as Christians, not in isolation or in the small group where we feel safe, but in the church community, with all the positives and negatives that we have. Let us try during this Christmas season, in peace and without fear, to see clearly the source of unity within ourselves, with others, and with the Lord. Also let us try to see the obstacles that we have in our relationship with the Lord, with others, and within ourselves: the sin of isolation in our parishes, the sin of humiliating others, the sin of gossip, or the sin of ignoring the good.
This Christmas, and at the beginning of the new civil year, I would like to encourage you to never get tired of starting to love again. The reason is simple. We are Christians. Our God perpetually loves his people. He desires nothing but our salvation. Our faith constantly reminds us that God loves us and he gives us the opportunity to love every day of our lives. This is why I am encouraging you, brothers and sisters, to look at your life with faith, hope and love. Search for small and big signs of rebirth, signs of new life, which are given to us by God.
I pray all priests, deacons, nuns, and faithful have a blessed feast of the birth of Christ and a happy New Year.
+Milan Lach, SJ
Bishop of the Eparchy of Parma