The Gospel for today from the second chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke begins with the words: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.” Caesar Augustus was the Roman Emperor; and he was ordering a census of the people of the Roman Empire that could then be used for purposes of taxation and military service. For that census to take place, as the third verse of today’s gospel says, “And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.” Since Joseph came from Bethlehem, that was why he came down from Nazareth to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, as stated in verse 5” to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. . . .”
For Joseph and Mary, their names were written down and entered on a roll—on a scroll of parchment made from papyrus—a plant resembling grasses or rushes—like the scroll from which the rabbis read from the Torah—from the first five books of the Old Testament. Joseph and Mary did not have a choice. Like all the people of the Roman Empire, they were required by the Roman Emperor to register, to be enrolled. However, we do have choices. We do have decisions to make. Do we wish to enroll as Orthodox Christians? Do we wish to be baptised and to have our children baptised? How often do we decide to come to the Divine Liturgy and to receive Holy Communion? Those are our choices; and today on Christmas Eve is an appropriate moment to decide how we will celebrate the birth of Christ tomorrow and throughout 2016.
The ninth century Orthodox nun and poet from Constantinople, Cassia, wrote of these opening verses from St Luke: “The people were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; and we, the faithful were enrolled in the name of the Godhead, when you [Christ], our God, were made man. Great is your mercy: glory to you!” The nineteenth century Russian priest, St John of Kronstadt, reflects: “And so, my brothers [and sisters] the feast of the Nativity of Christ reminds us that we are born of God, that we are the sons [and daughters] of God. . . . What does the Incarnation of the Son of God [the reality, that God became man] require of us? It requires of us to remember and hold in sacred honour the fact that we are born of God . . . .” [End of quote].
A thousand years separate Cassia and St John of Kronstadt, yet they make the same point—the birth of Christ on earth means it is possible for us to be “born of God”—to live our lives with a personal relationship to Jesus Christ and to the Church that He founded. When Christ was born on earth, not only are each of us “born of God” but as Origen points out in his Homilies on the Gospel of Luke, “we are co-workers with God.” This echoes those same words from St. Paul in First Corinthians, chapter 3, verse 9. In other words, we are not only “born of God,” but we grow up with Him and learn to serve His purposes on earth. As we grow older, we become His agents—His people who are acting in the world on His behalf. Then our names will be written in the Book of Life, as set out in the book of Exodus, chapter 32, verse 33; Psalm 69, verse 28; and Revelation, chapter 3, verse 5.
At Christmas, we hear a lot about the infant Jesus. Last week I went to a children’s Christmas play, where the person who spoke the most was the narrator. I said to someone, “The narrator has the largest part with the most lines.” They replied, “No, Jesus has the most important part.” I said, “But Jesus doesn’t have any lines to say; He’s just a newborn baby.” They replied firmly, “That was a long time ago. Now, Jesus has grown up.” That is a profound insight. Just as the baby Jesus grows up, so we too can grow up during the coming year. We can learn what it means to live with the person, Jesus Christ—the Crucified and Risen Christ, who taught His disciples how to live and who can teach us how to live.
St John Chrysostom preached about today’s Gospel reading: “A feast day is about to arrive, and it is the most holy and awesome of all feasts. It would be no mistake to call it the chief and mother of all holy days. What feast is that? It is the day of Christ’s birth in the flesh. It is from this day that the feasts of the Theophany, the sacred Pasch (Passover), the Ascension and Pentecost had their source and the foundation. Had Christ not been born in the flesh, he would not have been baptised, which is the Theophany or manifestation [of God to humanity]. Nor would He have been crucified, which is the Pasch [Pascha]. Nor would He have sent down the [Holy] Spirit, which is Pentecost. Therefore, just as different rivers arise from a single source, these other feasts [Theophany, Pascha and Pentecost] have their beginnings in the birth of Christ” [End of quote]. Like the feasts of the Church, we too have “our beginnings in the birth of Christ,” and our lives are “as many different rivers [that] arise from a single source”—the birth of Christ. As the years pass—as the current in the river quickens—we can grow stronger in our participation and leadership in our families, in work, with our friends and in the life of the Orthodox Church.
To conclude, tomorrow we celebrate not only the birth of Christ, but our own birth as Orthodox Christians and our ability to grow with Christ in personal prayer, in community worship and in service to Christ and to others. Fundamentally, on this Christmas Eve, we celebrate that each of us have made a decision to be enrolled as Orthodox Christians, to grow up as Orthodox Christians. Last Sunday on the BBC Television programme, Sports Personality of the Year, the Davis Cup Tennis Team of Great Britain won the award as Sports Team of the Year. The last time that Great Britain won the Davis Cup was 1936—79 years ago! It was a long wait. Andy Murray won the award as Sports Personality of the Year. In an emotional acceptance speech Andy Murray said, “I dedicate myself to this sport.” This Christmas Eve I dedicate myself to living as an Orthodox Christian. Whatever your age, young or old, join me in that dedication to Jesus Christ and His Church which is our Church.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and undo the ages of ages. Amen
Father Emmanuel Kahn