While we are rejoicing at the foot of the manger, let's pray that we're not missing at the foot of the cross.
Gen. 1:1-13; Num. 24:2-3, 5-9, 17-18; Mic. 4:6-7, 5: 2-4; Isaiah 11:1-10; Bar. 3:35-4:4; Dan. 2:31-46, 44-45; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 7:10-16; Heb. 1:1-12; Luke 2:1-20.
The Paramony of the Nativity, Vespers and Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.
The Holy Great Martyr eugenia.
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7:00 PM 12/24/2011 — “She wrapped him is swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” I've often felt so sorry for that poor innkeeper. Little did he know that he was turning away God. Of course, we like to think that had he known, he would have rushed to throw somebody else out, to give the room to Mary and Joseph—or even, perhaps, give them his own room—something of which our Lord would not have approved, anyway.
The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in Judea was about 3 or 4 days, over rough terrain; and, with Mary being 9 months pregnant, you can bet it was an uncomfortable trip. Perhaps, because of the bumpy ride, Mary was already in labor;—at the very least she must have been in tremendous discomfort—and, Joseph, being anxious to find some kind of shelter, decided to scope out the caves on the outskirts of town which some of Bethlehem's citizens had turned into stables for their livestock. The Western Church is found of referring to it as a “manger,” whatever that is; but it was a cave. At least there, he thought, there would be some straw to keep the baby and his mother warm for the night, and a roof to keep out the rain.
What do you think of the innkeeper? Is he guilty of turning away God that first Christmas night? Most of us would probably say, "No. How could he be? How was he supposed to know that this scruffy-looking man and his pregnant wife, both of them covered with the dirt of the road, were the parents of the Messiah?" Wouldn't it be ironic if, 30 years later, that innkeeper was part of the crowd listening to our Lord tell the parable where the condemned say, "When did we see you hungry, Lord, and fail to feed you; thirsty, and refuse you drink; naked, and did not cloth you?" And the Lord replied, "Whenever you failed to do these things for the least of my brethren, you failed to do them for me."
It's an interesting question: to what extent do we excuse the conduct of the innkeeper—who was, after all, a business man—because Mary and her husband, didn't look much like the door through which God was coming into the world? Simeon had no problem recognizing the Messiah. When Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised, old Simeon snatched the baby out of Mary's arms, lifted him up toward heaven, and thanked God that he had been permitted to see the Messiah before he died. How did he know that? Did the child Jesus have the word "Messiah" tattooed on his forehead?
Thirty years later, when Jesus was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and he stumbled across Simon and Andrew who were fishermen, and he said, "Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men . . . ." The Gospel says that they immediately dropped their nets and followed him; and they followed him for three years until his death and resurrection, and then they both died for him. Why? If you were sitting at work, doing your job, and some stranger came up to you and said, "Forget all that, just come with me," are you going do it? Probably not; and, chances are, you would at least ask, "Who the heck are you?" But the Gospel doesn't say that Simon and Andrew asked any such question, nor does it indicate that they had ever met or seen Jesus before; it simply says, "They immediately dropped their nets and followed him."
So, in our evaluation of the innkeeper, do we still wish to maintain that it wasn't his fault because nobody told him that it was God knocking at his door? Nobody told Simeon. Nobody told Simon and Andrew, and they accepted Jesus. You see, the whole life of our Blessed Lord on Earth is a series of meetings with people, some of whom reject him and some of whom accept him. The first person God meets during his stay on Earth is John the Baptist. When God was still in her whom, Mary went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who herself was pregnant with the future John the Baptist. And the Gospel says that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb leapt for joy. Even as a fetus, John accepted Jesus as God, and rejoiced. The second person Jesus meets is the innkeeper, who rejects him. And so it goes throughout our Lord's life on earth. Many people encounter Jesus: some will accept him, some will reject him.
What about you? What think you of Christ? Do you accept him or reject him? Now, I could walk up to each one of you in this church right now, and ask you that question, and without hesitation you would tell me that you accept the Son of God. But, then again, so would the innkeeper, had he recognized Christ. The point is, he didn't. Assuming he was a Jew, he was looking forward to the coming of the Messiah like everyone else; only he didn't expect him to be born of a woman traveling with her husband from Nazareth. And when you read the Gospel through, you'll find that all the people who end up rejecting Jesus, do so because he wasn't what they expected.
It is very easy, my friends, to come to church on Christmas Day, and accept Christ as a baby lying in a crib. It's an image of God that doesn't repel us because it doesn't challenge us—so much easier to swallow than the image of the broken and bloody body of Christ hanging on the Cross, for example. There are no consequences to kneeling at the foot of the manger; there are dramatic consequences to kneeling at the foot of the Cross, because one who kneels at the foot of the Cross knows what the Gospel is all about. It is not about lights and trees and gifts and a throwback to memories of our childhood. It is about sacrifice and conversion and turning away from sin. It is about fidelity, especially when fidelity isn't easy: fidelity in one's marriage, fidelity in one's duties to Christ's Church, fidelity to the teaching of Christ as it comes to us through his Church.
You see, the whole world is filled with people who would much rather kneel at the foot of the manger than at the foot of the Cross; and that's why they can't understand things like the moral teaching of the Church, or the obligations that are required of members of Christ’s Church. And they're equally as confused when you try to tell them about the martyrs, and explain why so many people, down through the centuries, were willing to give their lives for Christ. They can't understand these things, because the only image they have of God is of a baby lying in a manger. After that, they don't walk with Christ anymore. Those who walk with Christ all the way know that the manger is only the beginning, that the rejection of Christ by the innkeeper is just the first of many. They are the ones who walk with him to the end, even up the mountain of Calvary, to stand at the foot of the Cross. They are the true friends of Christ. Their image of Christ is different, and that's why they are able to understand what so many cannot.
Before leaving Church today I would ask you to take a close look at the icon of the Nativity I've placed on the tetrapod. You should know by now that everything in an icon is significant;—nothing is just a decoration—but today I call your attention to only one thing: toward the bottom of the scene, in the center, there grows a small tree. It is the tree from which the cross would be made. In our Byzantine Tradition, the day after Nativity is celebrated as the Synaxis of the Theotokos; but the day after that is the feast of the Archdeacon Stephen, the first martyr. His death is described in the Acts of the Apostles. It's so much like our Lord's own death: he prays for the forgiveness of those who are stoning him. Do you think that's all just a tremendous coincidence, or do you think that maybe there's a message in his feast being so close to the birthday of our Lord? Perhaps it's to remind us that this child who lies in the manger has not come to earth simply for us to adore, but he is here for us to follow as well; and, if we choose to follow him all the way, then we're going to end up marching up Calvary.
That, my friends, is the paradox of Christmas. Today we rejoice with the Church at the foot of the manger. Let's us pray that none of us will be missing at the foot of the Cross.
Father Michael Venditti