Christmas: Looking into the Future

Christmas often takes us into the past. We sing familiar carols. We decorate our trees with ornaments acquired over a lifetime. We connect with people through cards and gifts. 

Orthodox Christianity is viewed as a religion focused on the past, but it uses our past as a guide into the future   Years ago Metropolitan Savas said, “The strength to do new things for Christ comes precisely from our past, which gives us the rootedness and stability to reach out in confidence and explore and create without fear. “  

Orthodox Christianity is based in history. Our claim to legitimacy is largely based on the idea that we are the historic church, the church of the New Testament that has survived almost 2000 years now. 

When people ask me about the Orthodox Church, I tell them to look at the Bible’s table of contents. The church of the Thessalonians, the church of the Corinthians and the church of the Philippians- these churches all still exist and they are Orthodox churches. The church of the Ephesians existed until the early 20th century; it, too, was Orthodox. Other churches mentioned in the Bible, though not in the table of contents, such as the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Athens, Crete and Cyprus still exist, and they are Orthodox.

We are the church of Tradition. St. Paul once wrote (1 Corinthians 11:2), “I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.”  In another place (2 Thessalonians 2:15) he wrote, “Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” And in another place (2 Thessalonians 3:6), “We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.”

We are the Church of Tradition, but at the same time this very old Tradition is what makes us new. Romans 6:4 says, “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Again St. Paul writes (2 Corinthians 5:17), “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” In Revelation 21:5, we read, “He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” 

It’s an enigma that Christianity is something old that makes us into something new. But take, for example, the gospel passage that we read today. It is a story that we have heard over and over again, the story of a man who invites his friends to a banquet. “A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time of the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come; for all is now ready.'” How many times have you heard this? 

The banquet is a depiction of God’s kingdom, but not the only depiction of heaven in the Bible. The first is the Garden of Eden. Another is the beautiful depiction of heaven as a city with twelve walls, in which “[God’s] servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light” (Revelation 22). 

One of my favorite depictions of heaven comes from Isaiah 11,

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
      The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
      The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
      And a little child shall lead them.
      The cow and the bear shall graze;
      Their young ones shall lie down together;
      And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
      The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
      And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
      They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
      For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
      As the waters cover the sea.”

Today’s gospel reading depicts heaven as a banquet that God offers to His friends. There are few occasions in life so sacred and intimate as eating dinner with someone in his/her home. Perhaps we take it for granted, but sharing a meal is a sacred fellowship. In today’s gospel, God invited us to dine with Him, in His home. The irony of it is that people are too busy doing other things and find excuses to not go. None of the excuses are bad per se. Two of the responses – “I have bought a field, and I go out and see it” and “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I must go to examine them… ” relate to business. In other words, I have work to do. The third excuse, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come,” cites family obligations as the reason for not attending. They make perfect sense, until you consider what the people are losing by not attending. 

We live in a world with many distractions: television, surfing the Internet, reading the paper, catching up on work, Christmas shopping, texting my friends… The mistake is failing to discern, to decide what is more important and what is less so. 

The story of Christmas Is very old, but its purpose is to make us new, to bring us to the perfection intended for Adam and Eve and all creation. The Garden of Eden, the 12-walled city of Revelation 21-22, the vision of Isaiah are all imperfect attempts to describe for us the beauty that God promises to all who love Him and do His will. The very old is what makes us new again. 

To the Christians of Ephesus St. Paul wrote (Ephesians 4:23-24), “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” In today’s epistle reading, Col. 3, we heard, “when Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” This is what Christianity is about; it is what Christmas is about. 

In Orthodox Tradition the time from now until Christmas is a time of fasting, a time to receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion. It calls us to move forward on our journey into God’s Kingdom. In the Nativity story we return to our roots, but its purpose is to move us on into the future.