Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What you and I have been experiencing since the start of 15 November is, in business language, the “soft opening” of Advent. Now, today, however, we take a sharp turn and begin in earnest to drill down into the days leading us to the cave of Bethlehem, a manger stall, a holy and lowly Infant, His Virgin Mother, and His divinely elected Guardian. In our culture, these are days that are more sentimental than anything else, playing on some “lost” nostalgia expressed better by Currier and Ives than by the Nativity Prophets. We see this in the Gospel that recounts via a parable that we can, in fact, be denied a place at the Lamb’s Wedding Feast if we treat His Kingdom and the Meal of the Kingdom with contempt, at worst, or disinterest, at best. Thus, those ominous words of no return, “’For I say unto you that none of those men who were bidden shall taste of my supper’” (Lk. 14:16-24). Just how would Currier and Ives capture that for the sake of nostalgia?
St. Paul, on the other hand, is focused tightly on the whole purpose for Bethlehem’s cave and the holy Child in the manger. In the words of the Nicene Creed, we know the answer: “for us men and for our salvation [He] came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became Man.” But, of what does our salvation consist? There are those who would point us to Great and Holy Friday and its Cross and tell us the Child of Mary paid our penalty, a debt we owed to God and could never pay. Others would say that the Most Holy Virgin’s Son satisfied the wrath of an angry God’s rigid and unflinching justice demanding judgment in His cosmic court. Both of these would certainly be onto something and not necessarily wrong. Sacred Scripture employs such language.
However, we would point to both the Cross of Great and Holy Friday and its cave and to the cave of Bethlehem and the Son of God lying therein and say, “There is our salvation. For us men He becomes Man.” From before the foundation of this old world, the Lamb is to be incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and to be slain for the sin of the world, and on the third day rise again (Jn. 1:29; 1 Pe. 1:19-20; Rv. 13:8). This is salvation – God’s salvation – our salvation. Each piece is as important as the one before and the one after. If one is missing, the puzzle is incomplete and there is no salvation. In the immortal words of our Fathers among the saints, Athanasius and Irenaeus, among others, “God becomes Man so that man might become god.” The ultimate point of Nativity is our sanctification, our deification or theosis, as we Orthodox call it.
This is the “new man” spoken of by the Apostle here today. In the waters of the Mystery of Holy Baptism, we have “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him, . . . .” The image of God in which we have been created but was severely damaged in the Fall is now being healed in us and restored so that we might take on in even greater measure the divine likeness of our Creator, Saviour, and Sanctifier (Gn. 1:26). We were created to be immortal, “to be an image of [God’s] own eternity” (WS 2:23). St. Paul elaborates on this theme in Ephesians, teaching us that we have “put on that new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ep. 4:24). He further elaborates that the “new man” is, in fact, Jesus Christ Himself Who is the very Image or Icon of God, the very mold we are being pressed into and re-created in and born again from above (Jn. 3:3, 5-8; 2 Cr. 4:4; Co. 1:15; Hb. 1:3). Thus, by virtue of our Baptism and Chrismation, we are “in Christ” Who is the true Man, the perfect Man, because He alone is the God-Man – perfect God and perfect Man – into Whom we are growing up “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ep. 4:13, 15). We were created in righteousness for “righteousness and true holiness” which is the image and the likeness of God.
Paul says, we have “put on Christ.” We have “put on the new man.” In so doing, we have been obliged to “put off” the old something in order to “put on” the new. We just don’t put on our new garment over top of the old tattered garment. In other words, in contradiction to the teaching of some, God doesn’t put over our broken body of sin a white robe of salvation and call us clean when underneath is the putrid stench of sin, death, and decay. If any of us ever purchased an item marketed as brand new and discovered that underneath was a broken down, stained, soiled, dented, and scratched product, we would consider ourselves cheated and defrauded! The same applies to the divine gift of salvation. God doesn’t say the best He can do is cover up our foulness and call it new. Rather, in covering us, He re-creates us; in covering us, He makes us new again from the inside out. He not only imputes His righteousness to us, but He imparts it to us so that our hearts and souls and minds are made clean, being made clean, and will be made clean. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God graces us so that we may actually “practice righteousness,” according to St. John the Theologian (1 Jn. 2:29; 3:7, 10). “[E]veryone who has this hope in Him,” says the Theologian, “purifies himself, just as [Christ God] is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3). Our almighty God comes in the flesh of His creature to re-create us “in righteousness and true holiness” not in word only, but truly in deed. This is the renewing knowledge of God spoken of by the Apostle found only in Jesus Christ of Bethlehem and of Calvary.
And so, we are, by exercise of our free will now set free in Jesus Christ, to put off the old fallen Adam and Eve in us and to put on the New Adam, the Man from Heaven. For, “as we have borne the image of the man of dust [the first Adam], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man [the last Adam, the Lord from Heaven]” (1 Cr. 15:45-49). The fallenness we are to “put off,” we are to “put to death,” to mortify, looks like this, according to the Apostle: “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness.” These are grouped together by the Apostle under the heading of sexual sins, which, quite honestly, could be categorized as idolatry, that is, we give sex a god-like status in our culture which is a very powerful temptation for Christians. Both premarital and extra-marital sex is unbecoming the Christian, which includes cohabitation (Hb. 13:4). Moreover, sexual stimulation for the purposes of self-pleasure or illicit pleasure are likewise to be “put to death.” This includes pornography which is pandemic in our culture. Those images viewed once or time after time have a way of searing themselves into our psyche and are not easily erased or forgotten. Quite often, they pop into our thoughts uninvited and at most inopportune times like at prayer or during the Liturgy or at casual conversation with another. The thought itself isn’t the sin. It’s what we do with it that becomes the issue. Of course, this fuels the evil desires, the uncleanness, and the appetites in us.
These things are highly unattractive, do not glorify our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and greatly disfigure His divine image in us. But, St. Paul adds others. He says, “put off . . .: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy [sexually coarse] language . . . .” And, interestingly, “Do not lie to one another,” he says. Remember, it was deceitfulness that got Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, into deep and irreversible trouble with God, so that they conspired together to defraud the Church and together God judged them (Ac. 5:1-11). Again and again, in Sacred Scripture, God deplores a lying and fraudulent tongue and associates it with hatred, something that cannot co-exist in the souls of Christians purified by and devoted to divine love itself (Pr. 6:16-19; 26:28). All of these things – and more – reek with the stench of the old man and we are commanded to “put [them] to death” through humble repentance, fasting, frequent confession, the practicing of the virtues, and Holy Communion. Notice what the Apostle says: these are all in the past and at one time aptly described our lives. But, now we have “put on the new man” in Jesus Christ, thus suffocating and depriving the old fallen man any kind of life in us.
But, what, then, does the new man look like and consist of? It’s important, if not necessary, for us to know just what we are to be aiming for as we walk in Christ. Paul tells us in verses, though not heard by us this morning, that yet are just as important. “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved,” he says. Note well the beauty of that image: we are holy and beloved in Christ and we are the elect of God, not by anything we’ve done, but purely and wholly of divine mercy and grace, just like ancient Israel, chosen by God solely because He loved them and He would be loyal to His oath sworn to our father, Abraham, and to his children, so that we “’might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life’” (Dt. 7:6-11; Lk. 1:67-79). That holiness and righteousness is painted beautifully: “put on [note the baptismal language] tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, . . .; even as Christ forgave you, . . . But above all these [godly] things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (Co. 3:12-14). Love is the bond of perfection. It perfects all these holy and righteous things and serves as their catalyst.
When our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ came down from Heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became Man, it was all “for us men and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed). All of it. Nothing is lacking. In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. In Him dwells all the fullness of humanity bodily. “[A]nd you are complete [perfected, whole] in Him,” says the Apostle (Co. 2:9-10). We are assured by St. Peter that “[God’s] divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him Who called us by glory and virtue, . . . that . . . you may be partakers of the divine nature, . . . .” (2 Pe. 1:3-4). This, beloved, is the miracle of Christmass.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!