Dear friends, I must admit to being an unabashed Christmas fanatic, always have been and always will be. From my earliest years I was fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells of the season, the colder weather, the busier traffic—all of it. Of course, when I was growing up, there was actually a more overt manifestation of the holidays, with decorations in the public and private sectors overflowing with Nativity bounty, the roadways littered with wreaths and lights on the telephone polls, and each portion of each city engaged in an unspoken competition to see who could outdo the other in their Advent enthusiasms. Of course, as the years have gone on and the Philistines have slowly reduced such public displays of glitter to a bare minimum, only the unseen lords of economic bounty have seen fit to continue the tradition of harping on the Christmas season, now earlier than ever.
In one store in my neighborhood, the Christmas decorations were in the store the day after that other money-making blockbuster, Halloween. I’m sure it’s the same way everywhere, but, you know, I really don’t mind. When we get to the middle of November, the Christmas flurry is in full form, and even though many complain about this, the Church seems to agree with it, as the Nativity theme is already well-established in our services. It’s an important time, a highly spiritual time, and to me it does no harm if the world, which is mostly not concerned about the coming of Christ, being reminded of the origins of the season in spite of itself.
But this year has been different. The anticipation, the excitement, and the sheer golden glory of this time of year has been tempered by a heavy dose of dysfunctional human reality. Paris, the city of lights, romance, and dreams, has had each of these disrupted by the Eiffel Tower going dark, tears instead of joy, and the idea of personal safety shattered. I share, like all of you, in a portion of this fractured state of mind, feeling the same sort of human violation from a distance that many of those victims of Islamic fascism were forced to experience up close and personal. France, of course, is a holy land. Many saints lived or found their way there: Mary Magdalene, according to some traditions; Irenaeus of Lyons; Hilary of Poitiers; Genevieve of Paris; John Maximovitch; to that most recent of female saints, and one that adorns the iconostasis of my church, Maria Skobtsova of Paris. Today, if the land has the reputation of carefree living, known for wonderful food and great wine, glittery fashion and high culture, none of this dispels the fact of territorial sanctity gained by the trodden feet of divinized disciples of the risen Christ.
It’s difficult to fathom the idea of the destruction and terror imposed on this sanctified land by the forerunners of antichrist, as St. John of Damascus called the Ishmaelites, or followers of Mohammed, as if the barbarians are truly at the gate. So the Advent or the St. Philip’s Fast begins for some Orthodox, and will for others in a couple of weeks, as a time when the bright lights of the season are replaced with the bright lights of Paris aflame, the coming of the unique and perfect Son of Man usurped by the coming of the strong and people-deceiving superstition, again to quote St. John. As Orthodox Christians, the Church cannot remain silent upon witnessing such a travesty as has just occurred in Paris, and far from indulging in platitudinous remarks decrying the attacks, as anyone in their right minds would do, the Church’s testimony adding little to the overall outcry, we should instead be instructing humanity on the uniqueness and witness of our faith, the saving acts of Jesus Christ, as antidote to the horrors of unchecked human passion.
In the last few days I have instead witnessed a rather confused response to this incident. There are many Orthodox Christians, even among the clergy, who are advocating a “let’s turn them into a parking lot” attitude that smacks of a triumphal and not overly sophisticated gregariousness at the thought of a violent confrontation with the forces of evil. The “Onward, Christian Solders” approach does have its obvious attractions. It involves actually doing something as opposed to sitting and waiting, realistically, I’ll admit, of having something done to us. It bolsters the ideal of moral superiority as we come crashing down upon the enemies of our country, the French, civilization as a whole, and ultimately of Christ, as if he needed defending. It is indeed reminiscent of the Crusader mentality that the West is often accused of by these same perpetrators of evil.
Yet the moral indignation, as genuine as I know it is, can easily slip into the worst kind of scripted passion that fails to circumscribe the all-to-easy narrative of good versus evil and us versus them. The way of force is always too simple. It relies on the gut-level instinct of sheer brutality as a way of solving problems, and inflames our prideful desire for winning the exaltation of one human being’s philosophy, whether right or wrong, good or bad, over another’s. We must carefully examine our motives in this in the light of the understanding of the teaching of the Church as seen through the will of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is argued by some, as I read this week, that Jesus was no pacifist. The misunderstood statements of the Lord regarding the taking up of the sword and his supposed violent moments in the court of the temple with the moneychangers and indicating that his kingdom is to be taken by violence are supposed to show the severe side of his person. But this is seeking justification for a predetermined point of view and course of action not in any way endorsed by the totality of the Gospel message. For, in fact, there are several times in the Gospel where the Lord could have taken advantage of his ability to summon a legion of angels in his defense in order to avoid momentary troubles or even the ultimate degradation of the Cross itself, yet chose not to go that route. Instead, he encourages us on every page to follow him. “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” If we are to be his true disciples, we must do as he did, and that way is the way of humility.
So am I suggesting that we simply lay down our arms in front of the ISIS roller coaster and let them have their way? In my mind, there is absolutely no doubt that this is exactly what the Lord would do, for this is exactly what the Lord did do. And if he did it, he would in no way make any suggestion to the contrary regarding our own actions. His course on earth was to infuse definitive and concrete love into every person, a love so great that it would overpower everyone who came into contact with it, including even one’s own enemies. When we make decisions about how to respond to evil in the world, the blueprint has already been laid down for us. No amount of parsing or redefinition of the words of Jesus are going to change the clear and present radical danger of his words, words that indeed are intended to bring a sword on earth in terms of upsetting our preconceived notions of who God is and what he demands of us.
He did not tell us to be pacifists, but he did exhort us to follow his example, and that was certainly one of non-violence. The Church has always ceded the state the right of protection as a natural course, but also realizes that the act of war, even in self-defense, is a matter of sin. This is simply a corollary of our fallen state, which is why we pray to be forgiven sins both voluntary and involuntary. Sometimes, there is no easy answer, yet the only canonical statements about this come from St. Basil in his Canon 13, where he suggests that anyone involved in killing in a war be excluded from communion for a period of three years. This is to emphasize the very real seriousness of taking the life of a person created in the image of God, and to allow the person guilty of the action a chance for reflection and restoration, especially after being inundated in the very real hell of combat.
Jesus never advocated for the slaying of another individual, saying that “all who take up the sword will die by it.” His example could be no other in his perfection as the incarnate God, and he calls us to the perfection of his Father. Orthodoxy doesn’t require nonviolence as part of its essence, but it does not subscribe to any kind of sacred or just war, either. Yet the Church has always allowed the state latitude in the determination of when moral action is warranted, which sometimes means mortal action. War may be necessary within the confines of our fallen condition in order to maintain peace and defend the innocent, but we must remember that it always involves sin, and as such must be approached with repentance and trepidation, never bravado, and certainly not as some kind of a commandment.
I remember being told years ago of a Protestant pastor who left his church for a while in order to go fight the infidels. When asked by a reporter how he, as a Christian minister, justified the slaying of his fellow man, his reply was: “Just doing the Lord’s work.” Surely this is about as complete a perversion and misunderstanding of the mission and word of Jesus Christ as can be imagined. This season of peace on earth and goodwill toward men needs to remind us of our great responsibility when confronting the maniacal actions of those who wish the civilized world harm or insist on calling evil “good” and good “evil” as a quick ticket to heaven. The slaughter of innocent people in cold blood as a way of satisfying a false and ultimately sickening concept of “God” is something that we in this day and age have really not seen. Islam, being a Christian heresy that perverts the oneness of God and deprives him of love by denying his three-ness, does indeed bear within itself the seeds of this type of psychopathy. Today we are seeing that there are those who wish to embrace this interpretation and run with it, those who care little for the integrity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God, and exult in its destruction.
Yet we cannot, if we are honest, hide ourselves in this sacred time in the scaffolding of hate and revenge. We can never allow ourselves the option of an easy justification of the taking of any life, no matter how much we might desire to see this, especially if we believe, and perhaps rightly, that an honest threat to life and lives will be removed. The way of Christ, easily reminded to us during the season of Advent, is that our way must be the other way, the way that announces the good news to all of creation, that life has been answered by nothing else than love itself. It may well be that the only way to face down this very real threat of fascism, as real as what was faced in the second World War, is by the violent overtaking of those who have chosen to do the devil’s bidding, not because they have a religion different than we, but because the impetus for the destruction of the human being has its origin precisely in the devil and his minions.
The choices we make as people by necessity have to occur in the world we live in, and in this case it is one steeped in decay and death. But we must also not forget the power of the Babe steeped in the light of the noetic star, the One who comes to remind us, even in our most confusing moments of indecision, that our destiny is one that lifts us far beyond the confines of the entrapped situations that so compromise our attempts at putting on Christ in his fullness. Sometimes, even when we are right, the haze of sin clouds the fog of war, and our response must always be one of repentance and sadness at actions needed to preserve the good. Everything must be filtered through the pure and just grace emanating from the manger in that sanctified cave.
The texts of the Nativity Forefeast have some wonderful things to say to us that we should always keep in mind. Here is one.
Let us cast off from ourselves all defilement and stain of passion, and rightly take up a wise understanding of Christ’s incarnate advent. He comes to put on the flesh without any defilement, and to grant all men divine fashioning anew through the good Spirit’s might.
May God bless each and every one of you.