Friday, December 25, 2015

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

My Beloved Brothers and Sisters,

"Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people; for born unto you is born this, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." (Luke 2:10-12)

This is a day of great rejoicing my children, for this night salvation has come into the world; the Eternal Word of God has taken flesh and is born a child. Come, let us adore Him! 

What can we do but rejoice and glad? This night, our hearts should be filled with great joy and with consolation and hope for God has seen fit to come and dwell among us. The Word Incarnate has come to bring us the Good News, which brings eternal life and blessedness for those who would hear and listen and make it their own, living it to the fullest.

No matter what difficulties and trials we encounter in our life, my children; no matter how out of control the world seems to be, we should never despair of God's love and mercy. His love is a love that conquers all. Tonight a great light shines forth in the world. It dispels the darkness of sin and evil; it washes away despair and fear and replaces it with hope and confidence. Tonight, God fills the world with His love and it is that love which illumines the world and our lives. 

The star which shone brightly in the sky so long ago and which led the shepherds and the Magi to the manger in Bethlehem, draws us also to that crib in adoration and worship. Let us leave our worries and cares, our sorrows and fears at the foot of the crib, trusting that God will make everything right for us and the world. Of course we must do our part. We must believe in Him who was born this night as a child. God took on our flesh so that we could see and touch and know Him in a personal and intimate way. For those who believe, hope springs forth tonight in great abundance. The Fountain of Love gushes forth a sweet, refreshing and life-giving water which renews and restores us to our former beauty.

My fervent prayer for all of you this Christmas feast is that you may be filled with the love, peace and joy of the Infant Child of Bethlehem. May you always be childlike in your faith, find strength and comfort in Christ Who is born this night for your salvation, and rejoice in the hope and promise of the Gospel. be not afraid, my children and friends, for God will never abandon you, especially in your time of need and difficulty. 

May the peace of Christ be with you all now and during this Christmas Season and throughout the entire New Year.

With the assurance of my love and unworthy prayers,

I remain,

Your father and servant in the Word made flesh,
+Archbishop Stephen

Saturday, December 19, 2015

2015 Christmas Archpastoral Letter

God Became Man So That Man Could Become God

This statement, so central to our Orthodox Catholic Faith, explains, in a very succinct and simple way, why Jesus Christ came to dwell among us. Yet, in its simplicity, St. Athanasius’ words are powerful and tell us much of God’s desire and plan for us who are His creation and children. In this simple phrase is summed up the whole teaching of the New Testament. In his letter to the Romans and in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 3:17-18), St. Paul speaks of our “deification,” or becoming one with God. In the Gospel of St. John (John 10:34), Jesus defends Himself against a charge of blasphemy, saying: “Have I not said that you are all gods?” Many Fathers of the Church such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Hippolytus of Rome, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzus and St. Basil the Great, all speak of the deification or “theosis” of man. This is the goal of the Incarnation, our becoming gods by becoming one with God. This should be the ultimate goal of every Orthodox Catholic Christian. But in order deification, we must first accept Christ, who gives us power to become children of God.

In the Letter of St. James, the Apostle tells us that Jesus gave us a new birth, and that we are ‘first fruits’ of His new creation (James 1:18).  In the Second Letter of Peter, we read that by God’s power, we ‘share the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).

So, what then does it mean to be a “child of God” or “one with God?” And how is the Incarnation relevant to us today?

We are all aware of the current decline in religious practice and observance. It is a worldwide problem. One significant contributing factor to this problem is that many Christians, while they have learned the moral obligation dimension of the Gospel, they have not first been taught the Gospel’s message of empowerment. This is contrary to how Jesus went about teaching His Gospel. In other words, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not merely a set of rules or guidelines we are expected to obey without question but it lays out for us a way of life that makes us one with God.

How many people have given up religious practice because of one or more moral demands of Orthodox Catholic Faith? We think of the many areas of life where so many today find living as Christ taught and lived too difficult to emulate. Without sufficient faith in the empowerment foundation of Christ’s teachings, the moral demands can seem like impossible dreams.

Jesus Himself criticized the Pharisees for focusing solely upon moral obligations (Matthew 23:4): “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!” We lay ourselves open to the same charge today if we present moral laws outside the context of Christ’s manner of living and acting.

If someone we know has given up their religious practice or belief because of the moral demands of the Christian message, then the question that must be asked is this: ‘Do they appreciate that the Christ Child came to help them live the message of the Gospel?’ ‘Have they found some moral teaching too difficult to live because they are trying to live it without Christ’?
If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’, there are two things we can do to help change their point of view.

First, we could help them realize and understand that the birth of Christ is an event borne of immense love. This is what the true meaning of Christmas is all about: love. God so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) What greater act of love could there be than for God to become man so that we could become one with God? Such an awesome and wondrous gift God gives us in the miracle and mystery of Christmas.

Jesus was born to free us from the burden and consequence of sin. The Incarnation opens the way to true freedom for all men: rich and poor; slave and freeman; Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, etc. In the birth of Jesus Christ, all are invited to participate fully in the life of God and to be the recipients of the freedom that comes from His Word.

Baptized people share in God’s own nature. They are members of the Body of Christ. Christ seeks to make us “capable” of living every aspect of His Gospel as we worship God in spirit and truth, as we partake of the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), and as we pray fervently with all our heart, with a focused mind, and with a disciplined soul.

Second, we can help them come to know and experience the peace which comes from God alone. There was a reason God chose to come into the world as a child; as an infant born in the silence of the night. God could have come into the world any way He chose; He could have come with an army of angels or on a cloud with thunder and lightning. But He didn’t. He chose rather to come to us in a quiet, unassuming way: as an innocent baby born in obscurity.

In the beauty and innocence of the Infant of Bethlehem, we find the way to true peace and happiness; the perfect way to eternal blessedness. The birth of Christ empowers us with a supernatural power that strengthens our humanity, that gives us the courage and strength we need to change and fight the good fight, and that gives us the ability to purify ourselves and become like God in all things. This is God’s desire for us: that we become one with Him and live with Him in eternal blessedness and happiness. But we can only achieve these things if we open our hearts and minds to the reality and truth of what took place in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. This is why we celebrate Christmas, why we celebrate and honor, commemorate and remember that wondrous night when the Word of God came down from heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary, and dwelled among us. God became man so that we could become like God.

The night that Jesus was born, the angels proclaimed:” Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, to men of good will.” The message of Christmas is not only love, but peace. But there cannot be peace in the world without justice, and there can be no justice without mercy, and there can be none of the foregoing without love. Everything is rooted and has its foundation in love, or at least it should have.  Since God is love, it stands to reason that everything has its origin and foundation in God. But when God is removed from the equation, when God is removed from our lives, either by our own choice or by the acts of others, everything falls apart and chaos reigns supreme. God, and the love of God, is the glue that holds everything together.

The birth of the Child of Bethlehem is a subtle but poignant reminder of the importance of love in our lives and just how life-changing it can be. No other event in human history has made such a profound impact on humanity than the birth of Jesus Christ. And this event was born out of love and was itself, an act of supreme love. It was equaled only by the love Christ showed for us when He gave Himself up to die on the Cross. But, here too, there is a lesson to be learned. Christ came into the world out of love for us and He died on the Cross out of love for us; in between these two dramatic events was a life filled with myriad acts of love. This is the life that we, as baptized Christians, are called to live. In fact, it is the life all people everywhere are called to live: a life lived fully in Christ; a life of love lived entirely for others.

Christ was born into this world to become one with us so that we could become one with God in Him. God emptied Himself, not by laying aside His divinity, but by taking on our humanity. In everything but sin, He was like us. Consider this, if you will: The God who created the earth and filled it with many wondrous things was born in the midst of the very animals He created. The Creator of the seas, rivers and streams experienced thirst. The One who fed His people with manna in the wilderness experienced pangs of hunger. The One who set the stars in the sky slept under the stars. The One who inhabited Heaven’s ivory palace lived in a house of mud and clay. The Omniscient God had to learn how to talk and how to walk. The Eternal Word of God had to learn how to read. The Creator and Helper, Savior and Redeemer of His people was born helpless and dependent. The beloved Son of God became the rejected Son of Man. The One who created the angels had angels come to His aid during His temptation in the wilderness and to comfort Him in His sorrow and agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Why would God go through all of this if not for love of us?

All of this is what needs to be told to those who have given up their religious practice and/or their Faith. This is the true Christmas story. It is the story of love that we must tell every Christmas. It is the story we must pass down to our children and grandchildren and that they must pass on to theirs. When we tell the story of the birth of the Child King born in Bethlehem, let it be the story of love and selfless giving. And let us give one another the assurance that God wants us to share in His love and that He wants us to share His love with others. God truly does love us with a love that knows no bounds. For love of us He became human so that we too could become God.

Our deification begins when we accept God and acknowledge Him for who and what He is. Our journey to oneness with God begins as we make Christ’s life our life. And our deification will be perfected when Christ comes in glory on the awesome Day of Judgment and we are numbered among the righteous.

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us gratefully re-commit ourselves to working toward our deification in Christ by making His life our life; by announcing the Good News to all people and sharing our Faith with them; by prayer, fasting, and doing good works; by worship and fellowship; and by encouraging and serving one another. And let us be the instruments and vessels by which God’s love, mercy, compassion and peace love is communicated to and poured out upon all people everywhere.

May the peace, holiness and love of the Infant of Bethlehem find a home in your heart this year and always and may you share these gifts in abundance with all those you encounter in the New Year.

In Christ,
+Archbishop Stephen