Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) – Sermon on the Nativity of Christ.
“For the Life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us” (1 John 1, 2).
This new life is our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is now born in Bethlehem, as He Himself said during the last days of His earthly life: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14, 6).
What is this new life, brothers, and why do people long for it? Because before Christ, people were dissatisfied with their former life, and even now all those who separate themselves from Christ are dissatisfied; they are dissatisfied because earthly life does not correspond to their desires. They want to be healthy and full, but life burdens them with sicknesses and hunger; they want riches and high ranks, but poverty and dishonour goad them, and if they do not fall into these disasters, they still remain dissatisfied with what they have, and desire more good things.
Still, people have not all sought outward prosperity: there have always been those who were burdened by their own lawless life -- both by their own and that of the whole world; who were burdened by not knowing what would happen to them after death; who lamented the defeat or destruction of their fatherland; who complained that there was no righteousness on earth, but rather deception and violence. For such people life was yet more burdensome than for lovers of self: the latter sought a consolation for their woes, albeit temporary, in drunkenness, debauchery, fighting and robbery, but the better people did not see a ray of light anywhere; their soul was burdened by their own and others’ sins; and then, after repentance, their evil will drew them again into sin. Little by little, sacred hope and good desires were eaten away from their souls; and, at last, sinful passions gradually enslaved them, but these still did not given them full satisfaction, because there are no such admonitions as are capable of bringing rejoicing to an uplifted soul, but rather only serve to increase its inner torment. These people were filled with a grief of a similar kind when they studied the nation’s way of life; they saw that there is never any human justice on earth, as the wise Solomon said: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the bold, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet bread to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (Eccl. 9, 11). And it is usually the sly, flatterers, cheats and robbers who take advantage of this chance.
One could bring forward many more pictures from life in order to show how little life without Christ corresponds to our desires, be they good or bad. Because of this you find ordinary life burdensome, especially when you know human malice and have understood how impossible it is for people to hope for a more reasonable, just life. Laws against evildoers have been thought up to punish them, and they have contrived to have the innocent punished, deceiving the judges or else buying them with bribes or threats. People were punished for theft; thus, instead of thieving, they have started making each other drunk, so that the victim of their malice would make himself surrender his good to them, and his soul would also perish in wine; people tried to teach each other reason through philosophy, but the subtle malice of deceivers penetrated even here; and, under the name of philosophy, has taught youths the foulest concepts, convincing them that there is no good or evil on the earth, but only advantage and disadvantage. This is how people were languishing, like a bird with his legs tied: he flaps his wings, wants to fly, but falls down again because of the string.
Now you will understand why the Holy Apostle John hastens to rejoice those who listen to and read his epistle, assuring them that a new life hath appeared in the Saviour Who hath been born. All the believing Jews had long been awaiting such an Envoy, or Messiah, and the wisest of the pagans had been waiting also. They hoped that the Messiah would both make the path of virtuous life easier for each person, and also establish righteousness on the earth, so that the sinners would no longer dominate over the righteous, nor the pagans over the rightly believing Jews, but they hoped, on the contrary, that the manifested Son of God would Himself become a righteous king-conqueror, subdue the pagans and establish righteousness and general happiness on earth, and, in general, bring a new, blessed life to the earth.
And really, He both brought new life and called Himself the life of all. And those who have accepted His life, followed in His footsteps and united themselves with Him, have really ceased to experience that satisfaction with life which oppressed and still oppresses people who have not come to know Christ. What? Did they immediately become rich, famous, healthy, free from sinful passions? No, brothers, they became poorer and more inglorious than all; remaining in labour and fasting, they did not know the pleasure of bodily health, and increased the warfare with passions yet more, because they were now also struggling with such desires and thoughts as they had formerly not even counted as sins -- self-love, anger and lustful desire, for example.
In what way did they become blessed? From what afflictions did the grace of Christ deliver them, and what condition of happiness did it bring them?
There is one condition for happiness, brothers: willingly to refuse happiness, riches, glory, the desire for health, rest. They turned their hearts away from everything towards which people had formerly strived, except for virtue, and came to love everything, were reconciled with everything that people had formerly considered to be their greatest sorrow, except sin and vice. And when they disposed their hearts like this, sin ceased to be so alluring, virtue ceased to be burdensome; on the contrary, they began gradually to find in it that source of joy which the pagans had found only in earthly pleasures. This is the meaning of the Lord’s words: “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek ... But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness” (Mt. 6, 31-33).
It is not said in vain, brothers, that Christ brought new life to the earth. We see that he turned the human soul around completely; changed its nature, as it were. Formerly people accumulated wealth, now they have started to give it away; formerly they feared prisons and torments, now the Apostles exultantly thank God for them; formerly they feared afflictions, now St. James writes to the Christians: Those who consider that envy is just cannot understand this; nor can those understand it who have received sufficiency and honour in this world, but do not want to give up even a part of it to others of their own free will, but oppress the poor, degrade their subordinates, oppress strangers and make fun of simple folk. Miserable people! You are more unfortunate than those whom you are mocking: they are purified by their afflictions and come close to the Saviour Who hath been born, but you are removing yourselves from His new life and remain in your former death, as it is said: (1 Jn. 5, 20), hath opened for us the path to eternal and blessed life; this is what all righteousness in human society is based upon. “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations” (1, 2).
On earth, as before, there is injustice, and sickness, and poverty, and all kinds of offences, and the more time passes, the more of this there will be, as the Lord predicted, as well as the Holy Apostles Peter, Jude, Paul and John. But the souls of Christians were not overwhelmed or crushed by all these afflictions. They came to know another blessedness -- inner and spiritual -- and if they grieved about anything, then it was only about their falls into sin and the sins of their neighbours.
How, through what acts of His life, did our Saviour change the whole essence of our souls, or our lives?
First of all, by His very Nativity. That transformation of the human soul and life which He accomplished in Himself, was reflected in all its clarity in the town of Bethlehem. This little town in those days reflected the entire life of the whole human race.
The life of man is a universal struggle for comfort and earthly advantages. The multitude of people who had gathered in Bethlehem was crowded into various dwellings on a cold night; probably the poor envied the rich in their comfort, the rich harshly drove unwanted lodgers out of their homes, and became angry when the overcrowding forced them unwillingly to share their accommodation with others. At least, that is how it always is when a lot of people are crowded together.
Looks what happens according to the customs of the new life. He to Whom all the houses, all the towns, and the entire universe belong, deprives Himself of the last human dwellings and takes up His abode together with beasts, committing Himself to an irrational manger instead of the throne of cherubim. O people! Is it for you to struggle and torment each other for preference in honor, cleanliness and comfort, when God does not spurn not being allowed in to where people are and is satisfied with an animal shed! Man! You murmured about your poverty, you looked with an envious eye on the rich and famous, you lamented the poverty of your own hut, you are grieved that you are accounted as one of the simple folk. Go down yet lower in your station in life, and you will be accounted to be with God! You considered it a great honour to approach the doorstep of a lord, but look how easily you can obtain a dwelling equal to God’s house. You look at palaces with desire, because kings live in them or have lived in them; look rather at the stall where the incarnate Son of God dwelt. You see where is the beginning of the new teaching, of the new life, of the new customs. If you follow after Christ in this way, no place will be crowded for you. If everyone takes to heart the image of Christ’s life, then there will be plenty of room and no offence for anyone.
But you will say: I would not grieve about poverty, but I am crushed by my heavy daily labour. I sow and reap bread, but other people eat it, I herd the flock, but the landlords drink the milk, I tailor the cloth, but others wear it. Perhaps the enemy also tempted the Bethlehem shepherds with just such thoughts, when they were keeping watch by night outside the town which was plunged in sleep, and herded the townspeople’s’ flocks; but if they had accepted such thoughts, they would not have become the most blessed of people. There were then many people in the town who were rich, famous and not occupied with anything, but it was not to them that the angel appeared, announcing the birth of the Pre-eternal One; it was not they, but these paupers deprived of their night’s sleep who were granted the heavenly vision. They taught the whole world to sing those blessed words which resounded in the heavens: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will among men” (Lk. 2, 14). They were the first people, after Her Who had given birth to the Super-essential One, who were granted to behold Him and worship Him and glorify the Most Pure Mother of the Lamb and the Shepherd.
And further, Christian, go over in your mind everything that the Gospel reading about the Nativity of Christ hath proclaimed to us. All our customs, all concepts changed into the new life of the whole of human nature. Are you grieving over the fact that you have been subject to unjust persecution? But surely you are not more righteous than Christ, Who was pursued by the impious Herod. Are you grieving over exile or banishment? Remember the flight into Egypt. Do you find the yoke of the law burdensome? Gaze on the circumcision of the Lord and His presentation in the Temple on the 40th day. Or are you distressed at having to submit to one who is worse than you, while you yourself are more enlightened and better than others? But Jesus was far more superior than you to the elder Joseph and, however, He submitted to him. Do you consider your advisor or superior to have acquired his authority unworthily and by chance? But the Lord Jesus revered His imagined father as! a real one. And so understand that the burden of life is not in the labour, not in the poverty, not in obedience, not in bearing offences or even persecution -- no, but it is in considering that one has need of idleness and riches, self-will and constant pleasure. All this takes the joy of existence away from man, all this is also what causes evil passions and vices in him and nourishes them, and the Lord hath delivered us from all these errors, enlightening both poverty and bearing offences, and heavy labour and abasement by His Nativity. This is why the whole world is now chanting: “Thy Nativity, O Christ Our God, hath shone upon the world with the light of knowledge.”"He that loveth not his brother abideth in death” (1 Jn. 3, 14).
And so, the new life in Christ consists in willingly renouncing worldly goods and not grieving when they are taken away by force. Perhaps you cannot direct your mind this way at once. But to the extent that you willingly deprive yourself of earthly enjoyments, however reluctantly: fast, offend yourself by giving to the poor or giving way to others, do not become angry or take revenge for oppression, but bear offences in silence; -- to the extent that you crucify the old man in yourself -- to this extent will a new font of grace-filled life pour out of your heart. “He that believeth on Me,” says the Lord, “out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (Jn. 7, 38). It is no longer either riches, or health, or glory, or the destruction of enemies that will make you rejoice, but, just as a farmer rejoices over a ripening field, or a hunter over a lot of wild fowl fluttering about, or an artist over the beauty of a sunset -- so you will rejoice over prayer, spiritual reading and the opportunity to be kind to your neighbour, either by giving, or consoling one who is grieving, calming one who is angry, or bringing a villain to his senses. The impious Jews did not want to accept this new life: they wanted earthly happiness, and the destruction of enemies, and human glory, and vain riches. It is the same thing which their foolish pupils want even now, Europeans of various nationalities, and many here in Russia. They have forgotten Christ, have come to hate Christ’s abasement and love the treasures of the land of Egypt, not like the great Moses (Heb. 11, 26), but “like the ancient foolish people in the wilderness.”
And they are not only returning themselves to the former pagan madness, but they are also trying to turn ardent youths and our people from the path of the Gospel, and in their blindness they promise them universal riches and happiness through confiscating property from the rich for common use. -- If this division of riches were even possible, even then, what peace, what happiness is possible among the envious? And if people saw their happiness in sufficiency of this kind, then they would not be people, but beasts, who need nothing except satiety and rest.
These people know that they have gone against the Gospel, although they even deny it hypocritically; they deny it, but they feel that for them there is no teaching more hostile that the teaching of Christ -- as the Jewish scribes who roused the people against the Romans in quest of their own power, riches and honour, felt it. It is not justice, but envious malice that they are sowing on the earth, and, striving for rights, they multiply unrighteousness. Christ God taught us, brothers, to teach others not to seek for rights, but to renounce them; not to demand equality with the gentry, but self-abasement; not to fight, but to give way; not to commit crimes, but to bear offences. This is how the manifest Sun of Righteousness “hath given us light and understanding” (1 Jn. 5, 20), hath opened for us the path to eternal and blessed life; this is what all righteousness in human society is based upon.
Then let us, brothers, glorify the Lord Who hath appeared and rejoice in His Nativity! Nothing will take this joy away from us, -- neither poverty, nor offences, nor labour day and night: He hath blessed all this, and magnified it, and sanctified it with Himself in the town of Bethlehem. Let us draw instruction from here, and to Him, Who hath loved us, glory and honour, power and worship, with the Father and the Spirit for ever.
First published in Volynskije Eparkhijalnije Vedomosti, 1907, 21 january. Taken from Orthodox Life, Vol. 24, No. 6, November-December 1974, pp. 4-10.