The epistle for today from the second chapter of the book of Philippians can be summarised with the words, “Be like Christ?” How can we do that? How can we with all our hopes and problems be like Christ? Is it possible that this week as we begin a new church year, we might choose these words to express our personal aspiration for the year—to be like Christ?
Perhaps. First, we each have to recognise, as verse 6 reminds us, that Christ Himself “although He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God [as] a thing to be grasped.” On the contrary, Christ chose to be a servant of God the Father and of all humanity. It is this approach of seeking to be a servant of God and a servant of others, that Christ models for us. However, as St Paul points out, Christ did not grasp at this goal, nor should we grasp at some impossible goal that we are unable to reach. What is at stake is our attitude—our attitude toward ourselves and toward Christ. In the opening line of this Epistle to the Philippians, St Paul urges us: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” In other words, reflect upon the life of Christ and seek to be a servant—slowly, peacefully, without grasping at impossible goals. Seek to understand the attitude of Christ to life itself.
St Paul is saying to us we can begin to be like Christ simply by being a servant of others. St Paul’s advice is “do all things without grumbling or disputing. . . Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interest, but also for the interests of others.” That is indeed a challenge, but also a very sensible attitude to life—don’t grumble, don’t argue, consider not only your own interests and needs, but also the interests and needs of others. You will certainly gain more friends.
Is this possible? Can we human beings seeking to be Christians consistently place the interests of others as equal to or even more important than our own interests? Only with help from God. In verse 13, St Paul sets out a path for us: “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and [to] work for His good pleasure.” St John Chrysostom offers a very powerful interpretation of that single verse of scripture: “Both the eagerness [to serve God] and the working of [that eagerness] are a gift,” preached St John Chrysostom. “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and [to] work for His good pleasure, for if we have the will, then [God himself] energizes the willing; He increases our willing. .. He does not deprive us of free will, . . . but He shows [us] that by being rightly purposed we receive more eagerness in the will. . . . For it is His will that we live as He desires we should; and if He desires it, He Himself both energizes in us to this end, and will certainly accomplish it.”
The fourth century language of St John Chrysostom still communicates to us today. Once we have an intention to do something of value, of purpose, chosen in free will, then God gives each of us the energy to accomplish that purpose. To use the words of St John Chrysostom, once we are “rightly purposed”—that is, focused in prayer and in intent on something of value—then God “energises us.” In other words, God gives to each of us the energy to accomplish that purpose, that goal in our lives, even though our hope is initially only a vision and not yet a reality.
OK. So once in our own free wills we have worked out a sensible purpose for our lives, God gives us the energy to achieve that purpose. However, as St John Chrysostom says, we have to “work out” that purpose “with much earnestness and much diligence.” It would help if we had a reliable model of a humble human being who had had “rightly purposed” their life and been energised by God to achieve that purpose. The Theotokos—the Mother of God—whose birth we celebrate today was such a model.
To achieve purposes of value in our lives often takes time. Remember that Abraham and Sarah were not given Isaac until they were very elderly; and the same was true of the parents of the All Holy Mary, Joachim and Anna. The Vespers of this feast concludes with a hymn about how the birth of the Theotokos from her mother, the formerly barren Anna, renews “our nature that had grown barren.” Thus the link to Abraham and Isaac, Joachim and Anna is traced through to the reality of our own barrenness. We need to learn to be patient with ourselves, as we wait for the Lord to turn our barrenness into the fruit of saying with the All Holy Mary, “May it be done to me according to your word.” The birth of the Theotokos, just as the birth of Isaac, teaches us to trust God’s plan for our lives, even when we do not fully understand that plan.
We can deepen our trust in God and in His plan for our lives because of the way that the Theotokos learned to trust. What is so moving about the life of the All Holy Mary is that she is an ordinary person who truly sought to serve God. She was, as St Luke says in the opening chapter of his gospel, “full of grace” and “blessed.” Her life was immensely fulfilling. What a remarkable fulfilment—to give birth to the Messiah—to provide the womb where the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ were joined. The very nature of her fulfilment draws each of us into oneness with Christ.
Somewhat surprisingly, the life of the Theotokos is a model for us that we can achieve. We all receive roots and wings in our childhood—the roots of knowing we are loved, and the wings to enable us to fly away from childhood homes and become functioning adults. Admittedly, some families are more dysfunctional than others, but there remains a realistic possibility for each of us of living now as capable adults. Moreover, the life of the Theotokos offers us much more than the prospect of living as capable adults. Reflecting in The Life of the Virgin Mary, The Theotokos, the nuns of the Holy Apostles Convent in Colorado make a bold claim about the Nativity of The Theotokos. They pose a question: “What [is] God’s ultimate purpose for us and how did the birth of the Theotokos fulfil the eternal will?” Their response is striking: “[God’s purpose for us] is our unification with God and deification.” In other words, whether we are men or women, there is a significant sense in which God wants each of us to become one with Him, just as the All Holy Mary became one with Him.
Because of the willingness of the Mother of God to serve the purposes of God, the Father, we have Christ with us and in us. We are not being asked to give birth to some new religion, some new world movement, or to be part of a miracle. We are simply being asked, as set out the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 6, to affirm that Christ is “the way and the truth and the life.” That is what this feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos is about—each of us recognising Christ as “the way and the truth and the life.”
To conclude, as the First Canon, Canticle 9, of today’s Matins, suggests, the Theotokos is “the bridge that leads us to the Maker”—the bridge that leads us to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who act together to bring about our deification, our oneness with God. There is then the real possibility of purpose now in our lives—to become one with God—very slowly, very calmly, with confidence that God will give to each of us the energy to achieve that purpose during this Church year. Amen.
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn