Dear friends, well, here we go again. This time, the people of San Bernardino have been made to suffer atrocities that no one, anywhere, deserves, and if by proxy we all suffer with them. I’m as irritated as most of you, and that doesn’t say much, does it? For the irritation stems from an insult to my own sense of propriety and protection, an intrusion of sorts into my world of controlled actions and predetermined piety. It just isn’t fair. In this season of “peace on earth and goodwill towards men,” why does my personal peace have to endure such a display of manifest horror and anti-God activities? Make no mistake about this: what happened on the West Coast last week is indeed a manifestation of the spirit of antichrist, something that St. John the Evangelist warned us about many years ago and still does in our current readings of his epistles.
He says, “Many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” Wow. This hits home hard, especially in the days we are currently in, when Orthodox Christians are making extra effort in order to prepare the way of the Lord and announce to the world his advent among us. There is no doubt that what happened in San Bernardino was a pointed religious assault by those who most assuredly do not believe that Jesus Christ has come or is coming in the flesh. We need to take warning from this and do what we need to do in order to protect ourselves. But physical protection is only part of the issue. In fact, the spiritual dangers are much more profound, though it is doubtful that we are paying attention to this as we should.
The mere fact that I am feeling put out by all of this should be the first step in a diagnosis of my own spiritual slothfulness, for if I am honest, even though I am as appalled as anyone by the carnage and casual lack of respect for human life we have witnessed recently, one of my first thoughts was not of those affected directly but my own sense of invaded personal space. You see, as we have entered into the Nativity season, I, like many others I am sure, have set up a number of pietistic parameters that I had hoped to enjoy during this period. There are things I wanted to read, services to make got performed, extra prayers of course, purely secular things like making sure there was no last-minute shopping, and generally enjoying the beauties of the Advent season, and meditating on the wonderful gift the Lord is about to bestow on us.
I hate what happened to those folks in California, but I think I equally hate having to deal with it at all, and in this sense I am inadvertently exposing a chink in my own spiritual armor. You see, it is all too easy to forget that this time of year is not only a period of waiting, anticipation, and good feelings—which it is—but also a time of intensified spiritual warfare. It’s going to take a lot more on my part to reverently and worthily accept the advent of Jesus Christ into my world and my life than smells, lots of bells, and warm fuzzies.
This is a time of preparation, of doing all that I can to ensure that when the Christchild is laying in a manger, I am vouchsafed the honor and blessing of glimpsing only a portion of that noetic star that hovered above his divine presence. The Lord’s appearance among us didn’t happen overnight. It took millennia of the sometimes harsh demonstration of God’s love to bring a very undisciplined and unruly people to a proper understanding of what would eventually take place. Wars, rumors of wars, blessings, curses, life extended, life shortened, miracles, punishments—all of these were part of that extended and rigorous period of catechesis that the children of Israel underwent in order to remain worthy of that very designation.
It was strenuous from the belief in many gods to the teaching of one God, to finding out his name, to his appearing in the flesh. It was quite an experience of philosophical and pragmatic leaps of understanding that the hardened and stubborn mind of mankind was slow to accept. Even now, much seems the same as we still struggle in coming to terms with an event that defies all logic and expectation. Why, then, in the light of the preparation for his coming within the very body of his people, should my own preparation be any less rigorous? Am I not being equally obstinate in my own unwillingness to accept the challenges and difficulties of properly bringing my spirit in submission to his will, to jettison my preconceived notions of what Advent should be instead of accepting the realities of what the Lord is showing me that it genuinely is? This rhetorical flourish has an obvious answer, if one is even needed. That answer is a resounding yes. The Nativity Fast has to be taken on its own terms, in light of the events surrounding our own lives at any place and time.
So the challenge of maintaining proper Christian demeanor in the last few weeks has been an enormous one. Since terror activity has now hit closer to home and seems destined to be an irretrievable part of daily life in the future, it’s important to examine ourselves from a more deeply spiritual standpoint. For when an enemy is at the gates—and this is definitely the case—our own sense of candidness in terms of our faith profession rises to the top. As mentioned, my own reactions have surprised me, the good Lord wishing to draw my attention to an aspect of belief that perhaps needs some analysis and correction. For what is faith proclaimed during this special and grace-filled season of the year, if done only on one’s own terms?
Mangers, stars, shepherds, angels, inns lacking room and caves providing it are all wonderfully apt, penetrating, and succinctly moving aspects of the approaching feast, and we revere them with good reason. The scriptural accounts themselves are overloaded with joy and expectation, but we can’t forget that almost from the moment the beloved Christchild appears on earth, his life is sought by those wishing to destroy him and those associated with him. The world, as it turned out, was not a welcoming environment.
So we’re faced with the conundrum of learning to proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest,” while dealing with the ramifications of human beings, created in his image, also uttering these same words while destroying that very humanity. The insensibility and pure lunacy of it all can overwhelm us and nearly destroy the peaceful sense of joy that we should have. As we wonder, “Why, Lord?” it is imperative that we stop thinking of these issues in terms of temptations to be borne and more in terms of the spiritual vacuum that is opening up before our eyes. For you see, my dear brothers and sisters, we as Orthodox Christians have the answer to all of this, and yet we retreat into a self-absorbed, woe-is-me bubble, when instead we should be accusing ourselves, during Advent especially.
Now, lest you think your computer or smartphone failed you for a moment, let me repeat that. I did indeed say that we should be accusing ourselves, for our own laxity and lack of faith is one of the things that has led to this situation where such hopelessness exists in the world that those filling it are the ones willing to call evil “good” and good “evil.” Evil is, after all, simply the absence of goodness, so when goodness disappears, something has to take its place, and when that happens, events like Paris and now San Bernardino happen. But is this too harsh? Can we in any way consider ourselves responsible for these abhorrent things that so disgust and frighten us? Maybe we should back up a moment.
An instructive example may be taken from the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, based on the story of Jacob’s ladder, along with the famous book by St. John Climacus. Everyone has seen this icon: Christians going up the ladder, trying to reach the Lord, who not only waits for them but seems to be leaning over the top in order to assist them. Some have almost made it to the top, only to fall off, while others are still struggling on the lower rungs. But the larger point is that the ascent to heaven is one of constant motion. There is no standing still. We must progress, regress, constantly move in spiritual life, or we perish. And we perish because the evil one never sleeps, never rests, and never gives up his destructive proclivities.
If goodness is not being pursued and virtues practiced, he will fill the void, and quick. Our Lord’s remark, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” is not to be taken lightly. It shows the very real possibility that Christians can and might abandon their hope, for lesser things. The Church, of course, will go on. It will never leave the earth. But the fervency of its members is something that must be maintained by all of us individually, and this is especially true if we wish to offer to the world an alternative to the madness currently besetting us.
Commentators on the religious situation in many of the countries where Islamic radicalism is flourishing have all reported that an enormous spiritual vacuum is indeed opening up in these places where Islam is the rule of the land. People are longing for a spiritual reality that Islam, of any stripe, is incapable of providing. So what will fill this void? One answer is that which we are witnessing: an obsessive and extreme version of a religion that already has this propensity built into its very tenets. Violence becomes something spiritual, and eradicating those who disagree or profess something else is considered virtuous. Our own increasingly politically correct and intolerant society is proving fertile ground for this kind of craziness, yet in these Islamic countries we are witnessing something else that the Lord is doing through the power of his one, true faith—changing minds. And this is happening because of the Christian reaction to atrocity, just as we have recently experienced.
The website, Breaking Christian News, provides us with a few examples well worth speaking about. It says that God is opening the eyes and ears of many Muslims to see the reality of who God is because of the attitude of Christians. God is not the God of violence; God should be the God of love, should be the good God, the God that the Gospel has preached. So many of them are coming, seeking and asking about the things of Christianity. While the Christians under the persecution, they were very giving, very loving, blessing. Every time they were interviewed after such a massacre, they spoke positively toward the country, toward Muslims, forgiving their persecutors, praying for them, asking forgiveness of them, which is unheard of. Every time Muslims were killed, their families, their parents asked for revenge. Here, every time they asked for forgiveness, so many people started to compare: “What is this? What spirit do you have?” This is completely confounded in their expectations.
So we see this sincere spirit of the Gospel, the very Gospel given to the Orthodox Church by the Lord himself is the answer to our Advent quandary, a true teaching moment of grace that we are called upon to embrace in its fullness. Now, how do we do this? The answers are the same as they have always been. Have you gone to any Christmas parties this year? Well, if so, have you made up your mind to attend at least one extra church service for every party? And if not, surely you realize that this leaves even more time for church? And why church, after all? Well, because it is there that we find the most potent mixture of prayer, sacrifice, preparation, reparation, repentance, and the active practice of almsgiving. “Where two or three are gathered together” is not a suggestion but a fact, and it’s the power of the praying community that most effectively presents purity and perfection of spirit to the human community so desperately in need of guidance.
Where, dear Christians, would you rather be during the Advent season than in the Lord’s house? If you have any other answer, then you need to examine yourself as to what your real love is in this life. So don’t do as I did, a puerile and self-absorbed reaction to my own selfish desires for a wonderful life and a merry Christmas. Such things prove rather small in view of others who have lost any opportunity for such an experience this year or any other. It is our faith and the dedicated practice of that faith that is ultimately able to dissuade the purveyors of evil and convince them that there is a better way. The unknown author of the saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing,” was absolutely right, and as Orthodox Christians our responsibility is to renew our faith in order that the world should have hope, to see that God is love, and to see that those who follow him follow not a path to destruction and hate but of unconditional charity towards all people, even as Jesus Christ first loved us.
This is a call to spiritual arms, and the Church must renew and reinvigorate herself, showing by teaching and action what true life in the true God is all about. We must make this Advent an authentic journey of revelation and discovery, taking within ourselves the unaffected meaning of the Incarnation, and then setting it before the world by example. We have what so many people are looking for—indeed, perishing because of its lack. There will be no excuses if we neglect so great a salvation. Let us embrace the true Advent in the spirit of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and warm the cold caves of our hearts, so that the divine brilliance of him who [lies] in a manger has a fitting place to be born. And may God bless each and every one of you.