Christ is born!
It is fitting that we celebrate holy Chrismation during this Christmas season. You can even hear that the words are related: Christmas & Chrismation & Christ. The word Christ means “Anointed One” and to be chrismated is to be anointed with the holy chrism – continuing our initiation into Christ, which is completed by receiving his holy body and blood. We welcome Julian & William & Dominic into Christ in this way by the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit and we celebrate with them even as we continue to celebrate Christmas.
And yet, as the gospel we just heard makes plain, it seems the joy of our feasting is always tinged with a bit of sorrow. There’s always a bit of bitter mixed in the with the sweet – like a clove of garlic dipped in honey at our holy supper on Christmas Eve – or like the chrin we make for our baskets on Pascha – horseradish with beets with a bit of sugar. When St. Nicholas visits in some cultures he always leaves both goodies and a switch – because no child can be reduced to either naughty or nice – every child is good and yet also inclined to some evil. I think we can relate to these symbols, which express the paradox of our condition.
God does not force us to stop hurting each other or ourselves, but out of the evil we bring into the world by our sin, he brings a greater good – like actually a greater good. Our attempts to do harm not only fail, they fail spectacularly. There is often harm caused in the immediate, but never in the ultimate.
For example, the greatest evil anyone ever tried to do, I believe, was kill Jesus. Herod tried to kill him, as we heard today, and failed. Later, others would succeed. But out of that murder, death itself is defeated – the cross becomes the tree of life. God’s good will is always done in the end.
It’s pointless to keep sinning – which really is trying to be what we are not and to do what we are not made to do. So let’s knock it off, shall we? And submit ourselves to the good Lord. “That this whole day be perfect, holy, peaceful, and without sin, let us beseech the Lord.”
As we pray at the Lamp-lighting Psalms of Vespers, “the wicked fall into the traps they have set.” Our sinful designs cannot succeed against the designs of God. The very effort we use in sinning, God turns toward some good. “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor.” Allowing our vain and pointless efforts to unmake the goodness he has created for us, he uses these efforts instead and even against our vain, sinful, and corrupted wills, to build his kingdom. Though we suffer and cause others to suffer, through our suffering, he brings healing. Though we die, in Christ we live forever.
And so, while we yet feast and celebrate, we remember that the struggle is not done. The light of Christ is shining – but he is shining in the darkness – like the star shining over Bethlehem in the night.
Today we hear of sorrow coming quickly on the heels of joy. Joy came to the holy family by the birth of their new baby, who is our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. But Herod does not share their joy. He does not rejoice at the news that the true king of Israel is born. And so, vainly, he tries to do him in – by ordering the indiscriminate massacre of the babies in those environs. These are holy innocents whom we will commemorate on Wednesday. This tragedy is a sign – pointing back to Moses, through whom God delivered Israel, and forward to our deliverance from sin and death in Christ.
Of course Herod’s efforts are vain. Of course he fails. Sin is always vain. Sin always fails. When it seems that sin holds sway, be patient. It will fail. In this case, our Father did not mean for his Son to die in this way or at this time and so an angel visits Joseph in a dream to warn him to escape into Egypt. Another Joseph once narrowly escaped murder by being forced into Egypt – Joseph, the son of Jacob. These things are all connected – both to what has gone before and to what is yet to come.
Our Lord’s incarnation, his conception, his birth, his baptism, his ministry all point toward his ultimate sacrifice, death, and resurrection for our salvation. The sacrifice of the holy innocents in the gospel today points to this – to the kind of death he would die. He is hunted and despised by some of his own people from the moment of his birth. Already the prophetic gifts of the Magi pointed to this also – Gold was for the King, frankincense for the Priest. Myrrh, however, was used to anoint the dead and so signifies that this little child was not only the priest but also the sacrifice.
The icon of our Lady of Perpetual Help, which we have over here, and which venerate in our annual pilgrimage to Uniontown, beautifully illustrates the infant Christ’s premonition of his passion as angels display to him the cross and the instruments of his torture and death. He clutches his mother’s hand for comfort.
Even the date of Christmas, in a labyrinthine way, is connected to the passion of Christ. There was a common belief in the early Church that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date – which is one reason we make such a big deal now when the Annuciation falls on Good Friday. The date of Jesus’ death, about which the gospels give much more information than his birth, was worked out by some to be March 25th, therefore this was reckoned to be also the date of his conception, therefore his nativity was reckoned nine months later: December 25th – this is one of the theories anyway, that the date for this festival of Christ’s birth is actually derived from the date of his death. The connection between his birth and death was keenly understood. Christ’s conception and his birth come with the promise of our salvation through his death and resurrection.
And so we reflect on this, even as we continue to celebrate his birth. He was not born into a world without pain and he did not choose to simply erase our pain, but to enter into it himself, to join us in it, even to use it as a means of sanctification.
I know many families in our parish are suffering this Christmas – we have been afflicted by several deaths and hospitalizations this week – and so we can relate to this experience of the bitter mixed in with the sweet. We can join the Christ Child and his holy family in their hardships.
St. John Chrysostom writes about today’s gospel, “Even as He came in swaddling clothes we see a tyrant raging, a flight ensuing and a departure beyond the border. For it was because of no crime that his family was exiled into the land of Egypt. So do not be troubled if you are suffering countless dangers. Do not expect to be celebrated or crowned promptly for your troubles. Instead, you may keep in mind the long-suffering example of the mother of the Child, bearing all things nobly, knowing that such a fugitive life is consistent with the ordering of spiritual things. You are sharing the kind of labor Mary herself shared. So did the Magi. They both were willing to retire secretly in the humiliating role of fugitive.”
In Christ, God is now inside our troubles and our pain and our sacrifice. God is with us, understand all you nations, and submit yourselves for God is with us.