One of the truly beautiful things about the Orthodox Tradition, is that the worship services of the Church…the movement, the melodies, the hymns, the poetry…all have a way of adding depth and power to the Holy Scriptures.
I will give a small example for you this morning. Everyone knows the Nativity story, probably by heart. At some point, many of us have probably even taken part in a Nativity pageant for our Church’s when we were younger, and there was always one character for the girls that was the absolute easiest to play. It was that of Mary, the Theotokos, because despite being one of the stars of the pageant, she doesn’t have any lines to memorize! All of the dialogue in the Gospels surrounding the Nativity of Christ comes from the Angels, the Shepherds, the Wise Men…but when it comes to Mary, we hear one sentence that describes her state:
“Mary kept all of these things and pondered them in her heart”
The birth of Christ was an incredible miracle, one that no doubt overwhelmed this simple 13 year old child, who had spent her life in the temple. We can imagine her sitting there…watching as the shepherds from the fields followed that bright star, entered into the cave, and bowed down before her new born son. What must have been going through her head? What were those things that she was pondering?
In the Compline Service for the Fore-Feast, we get this “gem” from the worship services which enhances this entire scene for us. Speaking to the young virgin, we hear the Church say:
Marvel Not this Day, O Mother, seeing the Infant Who was born of the Father before the world: Who has come to raise and glorify fall human nature. With faith and love…we magnify Thee.
It is from these simple hymns that go along with the entire Nativity narrative, that we truly see and understand just how important Christmas is (or at least needs to be) in our own lives. In a few short days, we will take our place with the angels in heaven, and sing hymns and praises to God, who has finally come and brought light to a world. All of those pains that we suffer through, all of the emptiness that we feel from time to time, all of the difficulty that we endure when we lose someone we love…all of that is wiped away in a cave, from the womb of a Virgin, on a cool and peaceful night in Bethlehem.
Why does it seem so hard for us, living in the midst of the chaos of life, to truly see this miracle with clarity? If this what I just said is true, why is it that I still feel the pain of suffering, or those feelings of emptiness when tragedy strikes? We heard in the Gospel this morning, “Come…for all things are ready”…so what is holding me back from expressing the same joy, faith, and understanding of the feast, that the Shepherds, Saints, and Angels all experience?
We could go into a litany of ways to increase our faith in the Nativity, but I will focus on just question that I believe is the most important for all of us living in a secular world: “What is the condition of our hearts?”
For a moment…let’s all become cardiologists on the spiritual life. In the Gospel lesson today, when a Divine Feast was prepared, one that no doubt would have had good food and wonderful fellowship, why were people not rushing to the doors?
The first one didn’t come because he was pre-occupied with his property. He was like all of us when we just buy or rent a new house. We are aching to go and see it. We want those keys so badly, so that we can go and sit in an empty living room and dream big!
The second one didn’t come because he had to take care of his oxen. Perhaps he was a farmer who was too preoccupied with his job, to be attending a banquet thrown by the Master.
The third one didn’t come because of his new family. He had just gotten married! I’m sure everyone here can harken back in their memories to the days following their marriage…typically utter chaos!
We notice that in these responses, no one said: “I can’t come because I’m too busy murdering my cousin”. All of the excuses that were given are actually good and wholesome! Owning property is a blessing! Having a job and a livelihood is a blessing! Being married and having a family is a blessing!
But what happens, brothers and sisters, when these noble and wonderful blessings become our sole purpose for living? If we fill our hearts with the joy of our possessions, what becomes of us when they are taken away from us in a tragic fire? If we pour our heart and soul into our careers, what happens if we suddenly lose our job? If our entire lives circulate ONLY around our families and loved ones, what happens to us when they fall asleep in the arms of their creator?
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, when noble and wonderful blessings that we have received from God, become our sole purpose for living…there is something that is truly dangerous about the condition of our hearts. Life is too difficult to live, if a love and understanding of God is completely absent.
No matter where we all are at, no matter where we are in our spiritual growth, each and every one of us has an opportunity to make improvements to our hearts…today. We give thanks to God for the homes and things that you have been given. We rejoice that we have been blessed with jobs, or financial support from others, that allow us to put food on the table. We make a ton of room in our hearts for our family, our friends, and our loved ones, and allow them to fill our lives with joy. But we must also ensure, that through fasting, prayer, vigil, worship, the sacraments, reading the scriptures, and understanding of the faith, that we cultivate a heart that is full of the love of God, because His love of us is the only thing in this world that does not pass away.