A strange and most glorious mystery do I behold: the cave is Heaven; the Virgin, the throne of the cherubim; the manger, the place wherein lay Christ God Whom nothing can contain…
With these sacred words, in which the glad tidings of the great mystery of the Son of God are proclaimed, the Holy Church solemnly announces the radiant days of the feast of the Nativity of Christ. They were heard first long before the feast itself, on the eve of another great feast--the Entrance into the Temple of the Mother of God. And thereby the Church begins quite early on to prepare Her children to greet the Feast of the Nativity in a fitting manner
And if the holy hierarch Gregory the Theologian, speaking of our great feasts, refers to them as "mysteries", thereby indicating the richness of their spiritual content and the exalted mysteries of the Faith which are disclosed therein, then perhaps this profound thought of the ecumenical teacher may be even more aptly applied to the feast of the Nativity of Christ, which is called "a strange and most glorious mystery." And Paul, the preeminent Apostle, speaking in brief of the essence of our Christian evangelical task, said: "Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh" (I Tim. 3:16).
Blessed was the night of the Nativity. In the fields of Bethlehem the flocks grazed peacefully. And round about them were the shepherds, "keeping watch over their flocks by night" (Luke 2:8). There is a tradition, according to which these humble and faithful laborers were conversing on the peaceful night about the exact time of the advent of the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. And suddenly the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them. Man cannot encounter denizens of the world above without experiencing fear and trembling; and the shepherds "were sore afraid." Yet with what did the celestial herald begin his good tidings? "Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people" (Luke 2:10). And this great, this sacred joy the Church has received, and preserved, and proclaims to Her faithful children yearly during the radiant days of the Nativity of Christ.
Well nigh two thousand years have passed. For two thousand years the Holy Gospel has been proclaimed to the world; and therein the Church, yearly, over and over again, announces the glad tidings of the birth of Christ and take s up the angels' doxology: "Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will among men" (Luke 2:14). But does contemporary humanity pay it any heed?
On the night of Christ's birth when Heaven came down to earth and earth became Heaven, in that God appeared on it incarnate, only the lowly shepherds of Bethlehem heard the angelic doxology and worshipped the Newborn, according to the Gospel. All the rest of mankind slept a deep sleep, unaware of what had taken our sorrow-filled and trying days, how many are those who sleep a sound spiritual sleep from which they do not wake, who do not hearken to the good tidings of the Church! They pay no heed to the angels' song; it does not touch them. And if it reaches them in church, it leaves no trace in their souls; they are lost in earthly vanity and are not mindful of heaven.
The holy angels sang of peace--"and on earth peace..." Truly it is thus! For He Whom the Prophet called "the Prince of Peace" came to earth: He came Who, when He bid farewell to His beloved disciples, said to them; "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you" (John 15:27). Oh, if only mankind, which has lost peace, yet yearns for it and seeks after it, would but listen to these holy words of the Prince of Peace and ponder on them!
When the faithful Christians see the desperate attempts and efforts of the children and sages of this age to establish peace on earth in our time, they bring to mind the dreadful prophecy of the Prophet: "There is NO PEACE, saith my God, for the wicked" (IS. 57:21). Nay, nor shall there be! And pathetic are all the attempts of the lovers of peace to attain an external peace! It is not for naught that the Lord, after speaking of the peace which He bestows upon His disciples, added: "Not as the world giveth, give I unto you" (John 14:27). And the Gospel tells us plainly that the Lord has said of the outward (political) peace for which the learned men of this age are striving: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:3g). Therefore, in vain are the reproaches of those who maintain that Christianity has "failed," that it has promised men peace, but has not delivered it. For the angels chanted on the night of the Saviour's birth, and the Saviour Himself spoke, not of an outward peace, but of a spiritual peace, a peace between God and man, the peace of one' s conscience, an inner peace. The Lord never promised an external peace; on the contrary, having foretold wars and rumors of wars, He added: "See that ye be not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation? and kingdom against kingdom" (Matt. words that on earth there will never be that outward, political peace for which the propagandists are screaming?
The world is blind, has lost its senses, is entangled in its own passions and errors ! Oh, if you could now but behold, see the light of knowledge, and understand what advances peace and your salvation! Yet, alas! this is hidden from your eyes, for over them lies the impenetrable blindfold of vanity and the passions. The light of knowledge of God shines forth from the manger of Bethlehem, yet you do not perceive it; He Whose good pleasure it was to lie in that manger cries out to you: "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28)--but you pay no heed to this saving call; you follow after your own wise men, of whom the word of God said long ago that "professing themselves to be wise, they became fools" (Rom. 1:22). And with yet greater and greater clarity, one senses in you the fetid breath of the approach of the one who will rise ap before you as the full and dreadful incarnation of evil, sin and opposition to God.
Once, in the early days of the spreading of Christianity, the holy Apostle Peter, warning the first Christians, cried out: "Save yourselves from this perverse generation" (Acts 2:40). By "perverse generation" the Apostle had in mind the implacable foes of Christ among the Jewish nation, as well as the entire pagan world, which to a great extent was depraved and debauched. Prior to the birth of Christ, paganism had already become obsolete and moribund, having completely lost sight of the true meaning and significance of life. Christianity brought the light of understanding to pagan peoples and gave them new powers--and in Christianity pagans were regenerated spiritually. But what we see now in our own times is incomparably worse and more perilous than what took place of old. Now the Christian world has become depraved! Christians have become depraved--those whom the Saviour commanded to be the light of the world, with the awesome warning: "Ye are the salt of the earth, but if the salt have lost its savor, with what shall it be salted?" (Matt. 5:13).
Is this not taking place in our midst, right before our eyes? Are not today's Christians'' turning into salt which has lost its taste?
Flee this dreadful spiritual destruction, O faithful child of the Church ! Save yourself from this perverse generation! Lo! in these radiant days the Church commemorates the Nativity of Christ and glorifies the newborn Saviour of the world; Make haste in your faith to the manger of Bethlehem, following after the simple shepherds, pure of heart, and the wise magi who laid all their wisdom and knowledge down before that manger. Bring your own gifts to the divine Infant-faith in Him, trust in Him, love for Him--and then in your faithful and devoted heart the wondrous doxology of the angels will sound: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men!
Chief Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia
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