December 26,2021 was the Sunday after Christmas. In the calendar of the Orthodox Church this Sunday is a day of importance. That December 26 fell on a Sunday was unusual — generally a few days separate Christmas Day from the Sunday after Christmas. This year, the joyful announcement of Christ’s birth was, in 2021, followed immediately by the sobering message of the Gospel reading set for this day:
Now when they [The Magi] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matthew 2: 13 – 15)
They fled to Egypt because, out of Herod’s rage, those who were innocent — in this case every male child under the age of two years was to be murdered, slaughtered. (Annually, on December 29, their lives and deaths are commemorated and honored. This is the day of the 14,000 Holy Innocents.) There, in Egypt, the family would find the company of Jews who fled the fall of Jerusalem, yet never returned to Judea.
Some time passes. Herod the Great dies and the same angel again appears to Joseph in a dream. He is informed that, “…those who were seeking the life of the child have died” (Matthew 2:20). Joseph leads them back to Israel, but Joseph learns that the cruel despot Archelaus followed Herod to reign after his death (Caesar Augustus deposed and sent Archelaus into exile in 6 A.D.). Our Lord’s stepfather is troubled and the angel directs their next destination:
…and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled. “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2: 22, 23).
It is of note that those in Judea did not regard Galilee, and particularly Nazareth, very highly. The region would today be considered “fly over country” by the power elite of Jerusalem. But, in this town and region of no esteem, Jesus grows. Here he learns the Jewish faith in its synagogue. Here, by his stepfather, he and his stepbrothers learn their craft and trade. Here he would care for his mother after Joseph’s death. In lowly Nazareth of Galilee he grew into adulthood and would then enter into his ministry.
Let’s shift to the third decade of the twenty-first century. Today we have multiple Herods and others like Archelaus who despotically rule. They pose real and serious threats to the lives of those they tyrannically rule by decree — even to the lives of the faithful. Thus, it is fair to say that we of the Christian faith have on this planet no country, no state, and no capital city in which we have security, safety, and liberty. St. John Chrystostom properly informs us by his question: “Why do you pride yourself on your country when I am commanding you to be a stranger to the whole world?” We must remind ourselves that we are citizens of a Kingdom, and that no state or country can provide the guarantee of continued political security for us. In this decade we find ourselves in a form of totalitarianism where there can be no surety — all is a “nut and shell game”!
Totalitarianism. Lately, I have been reading The Power of the Powerless. It is a book — or better — a collection of thematic essays written by Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident of the years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia who would later become president of a free Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic. The work was published in 1978, and about a fourth of the way into it he introduces a character, the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper is typical of citizenry of the day — he went along with the Communist Party lies to “get along” and live untroubled by the state. But a day comes when he no longer buys into the collective lie. He wakes up and chooses to live within truth. The shopkeeper, then of course, pays the price: he is now troubled by the authorities who demand his compliance.
In this decade we have to ask ourselves a question. Will we cower like fearful mice to please Herod and Archelaus and submit to their whims that we might “get along nicely”?
On December 26, the Orthodox Church also commemorates Joseph the Betrothed (the stepfather of Jesus) and James the “[step]brother of our Lord.” James was the first Bishop of Jerusalem and his epistle is in the New Testament. James was not one to pull punches in his instructions to the faithful. We have these words:
Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4: 4).
The one who is of faith would want to choose friendship with God over that of the world system. But we must confess that we are weak. What makes us weak? It is our entanglements with the world system and all the creature comforts offered by it. I am reminded of the parable of the Sower and the Seed which we find in the thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. In this parable we learn of the soil which bears thorns into which grain seed is sown. The problem is that in this soil the thorns deprive the grain of nutrients and the grains’ fruit cannot mature. Later in this chapter, Jesus explains,
As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful (Matthew 13: 22).
It appears that this is the condition of many — and I include myself in this number. Our ease of life — that of consumerism — in which we comfortably rest may prove to be the cause of our fall. With mandates and the prospect of social passports, will we cave into the demands of the state so we can “get along nicely”? Thorns additionally deprive us of the freedom to let go. Yet, we can uproot the thorns with God’s help. Though
St. James is blunt, yet he can provide encouragement to us:
Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind…Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you (James 4: 8, 10).
May it be so that we may become free of thorns, bear fruit, and be friends of God in these troubling days!
The following is a corresponding sermon given 12/26/21.