December 22, 2014 Length: 15:41
As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, the eternal Word of God become man, we remember that the Lord Jesus Christ has both a familial and spiritual lineage. Through His birth, He heals the brokenness of His, and our, human family. (Sunday before the Nativity of Christ)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory to him forever!]
You’ve probably seen the commercials on television for Ancestry.com and how people are just putting one name that they want to search for, and then they find other names that are connected to that particular person, and then pretty soon, you’re filling in all the leaves on your genealogical tree. This week, I received a very great gift of news, information that I had not known before. I had asked my father many times, “Tell me about your extended family. Tell me about your father and his family,” but he really didn’t know that much about them. He said that he knew that his father had brothers, but he had never met them.
Today, through my dear friend Kristie Mertz, this week I found out that I have a great-uncle who was a priest. Big surprise there. He was a priest in Canada, and then he came down into the United States and served parishes, really all over the East: in Connecticut, Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. And it made me convinced, made me proud, made me feel proud about my heritage.
And I will also express to you things that I’ve told you before somewhat, that I’m adopted, and there is that curiosity. It’s not a driving curiosity, but to know about my birth family. What I haven’t shared before is that the history of my birth family is very tragic, and I don’t dwell on it too much. My birth mother, after she gave birth to me, spent the rest of her life at Torrance State Hospital, a state mental institution, which is now closed. She suffered from psychosis, and she stayed there for most of her adult life. My birth father was a very troubled young man from the very earliest years. He had run-ins with the law. He was investigated by the FBI. He had numerous wives. We’re not even sure how many, possibly five. And this is sort of life. This is, in a way, the picture, the icon, of the complexity of humanity.
I don’t dwell on it. I’m very grateful for the family that I have, my Soroka family. That’s the only family I know. In the readings today, there are 58 names between the epistle reading that we heard and the gospel reading that we heard. All of these names, in one way or another, are either related to Jesus familially, by blood, or they’re related to Jesus spiritually, by faith. What’s interesting to note about all of these names is, just like the example that I gave you about my adopted family, about my birth family, there is a mixture of both good and bad.
We hear about these heroes of our faith. We hear about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. We hear about the patriarchs. We hear about the amazing things that all of these men and women went through, it says “by faith,” suffering persecution, suffering hunger, suffering physical threats by the sword, but we also hear these indelicate things: the reality of the fallenness of human life. We hear about Rahab, who is in the lineage of Jesus, who was a prostitute. We hear about mighty King David, who gave birth to a son named Solomon by a woman who was not his wife, the wife of Uriah, one of his servants.
So the first point is this: Jesus takes all of this within himself. He takes the good of humanity and he takes the fallenness of humanity. He takes the faithfulness of humanity and the faithlessness of humanity, and he embraces it in himself. And he comes to earth and he lives a life worthy of the calling of the name “human.” He lives a life of which our ancestors failed to live, and he does what our ancestors were unable to do, and that is: redeem all of that struggle within himself and offer it up to God and bless it and sanctify it and deify it and make humanity what it was always meant to be.
When we think about our families and we think about our humanity and we think about our failures and our fallenness, we can’t look at that with hopelessness. We can’t look at that, especially at this time of year, especially when we think about our life as Christians, because our life as Christians is wrapped up in all of that history. That history that we read about today, all of those difficult-to-pronounce names: that’s our history. That’s our history, because we are born of Christ. So all of those struggles are our struggles, let alone our own struggles.
The second point is that we hear about, in the epistle reading especially and in the gospel reading, the hope of faith, that all of these people before the time of Christ knew that there was a Messiah coming, but they did not know who he was. The whole point of that long reading in the epistle reading, and that long reading of names in the gospel reading, and even the story about Joseph, where he finds out that his betrothed is pregnant before their official marriage, what allows them to see through the difficulties of life and the struggles of our humanity is the hope of faith, is the hope that there is redemption, is the hope that there is something amazing going on in our life, something beyond what we can see with our eyes, something beyond the hopelessness, the mundane things of this world that oppress us, that lead us down.
Last week we heard about, from the representative of the IOCC, Zelfa Khalil, who came to our parish and told us about the horrible plight of Syrian Christians who are being beheaded, who are being cut in half, who are being driven from their homes, who are being hung, who are being crucified for one reason: for the name of Christ. There’s even a story going around that little children refused to deny the name of Christ and they said to their persecutors: “We love Jesus.” And they were slaughtered. This is the hope of faith. This is why we feel this enlivening spirit at this time of year, where a Child from this both good and bad lineage, things that are messy in life, in that complicated genealogical table, that a Child would come, born of God and of the Virgin Mary, born of divine and human, it says in the Gospel, “would save their people from their sin.” What we celebrate today is the hope of faith.
Finally, the question in all of that, if we look to Christ and if we recognize what actually is happening there, that humanity from the very first moment of the conception of Christ is being redeemed, is being renewed, is being made again what it was always meant to be. The question for us is: What of our legacy? When we look at our ancestors, are we able to understand what they have given us? We celebrated our 100th anniversary, and we talked a lot about the building, and that’s wonderful. We received a building. For those of us [who] grew up in the Orthodox faith, we were given the Orthodox faith. But legacy goes both ways, right? We receive something, but then we also have the possibility, the responsibility, to pass something on.
And when we look at all of that, not just the building but the people, not just the art but the content of the faith, when we look at all of that, is that something that we treasure, is it something that we live, is it something like those who went before us? It says:
And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.
In other words, they were faithful, even though they didn’t see the Messiah. Abraham never saw him. Isaac never saw him. Jacob never saw him. But they knew Messiah was coming. And it says, “They could not be made perfect apart from us,” apart from the revelation that we have. And the question is: What about our progeny? What about those who come after us? What will we pass on to them? What will we give them? Will we give them simply empty traditions, or will we give them the richness of the faith, a true and abiding love for God, a recognition of Christ as Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit, a living and active faith, and a love of God which we say in our church motto: “We worship God through Orthodox Christian worship, through care and love for one another, sincere care and love for one another, and service to those in need around us”? How we live our faith, how we are examples to our children and their children—this is the only way that this family tree gets more leaves.
So at this time of the year, we look back as in the epistle readings and the gospel reading, and we look forward, and we say, “What is this feast to me, this Nativity feast? Am I going to reduce it to food and presents, or am I going to understand the content of the faith, that those who came before me were looking for this Messiah and now we have him!?” Let us not let them down. Let us understand the great responsibility, the great gift, the great blessing that we have in celebrating the feast of the Nativity this week.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever family we have, good or bad, let us offer it up to God. Let us redeem it. Let us change it. Let us deify it, so that we pass on to our future something better, something holier. To him who is our life, with the Father and the Spirit be glory, honor, and majesty always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory to him forever!]