Sunday, December 18, 2016: Sunday before the Nativity of Christ (The Genealogy); Martyrs Sebastian and Zoe of Rome, and those with them
Epistle: Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25
The saints of the Old Testament are often, as they are this morning, portrayed as conquerors in ways that might make us uncomfortable. While we are called to be peacemakers, the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church doesn’t command pacifism. The saints of old covenant “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight.”
Yes, the saints of the Old Testament also suffered. And yes, like them, there are times when Christians will suffer injustice. At other times though we will war against injustice. If at times we “killed with the sword,” there are other times when God calls us to take up the sword in defense of others. Which path we will take depends not only on our personalities but circumstances.
My point here is not to involve us in a discussion of when war is or is not justifiable. It is rather to point out that there are objective moral limits that we can’t transgress and which we must at times defend. The sign that I love God is that I keep his commandments rather than simply follow my own will (see John 14:15-31). And at times to say to God “thy will be done” means to will my own undoing as St Isaac the Syrian says.
Today’s Epistle reminds us that the Christian’s pursuit of holiness is more complex than we imagine. More importantly still, the call to holiness—to saying, “Yes!” to God—is universal. No matter who we are, no matter what our condition in life, Jesus Christ calls us to be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect (see Matthew 5:48).
Listen carefully to the Gospel and you can’t miss the universality of the call to holiness. Look at the three women that St Matthew includes in his genealogy of Christ: Tamar, Ruth, and Mary. Not only are these women different individuals with different personalities, they are different in life situations when they are called by God to help “prepare the way of the Lord” (see Isaiah 40:3).
Tamar is a prostitute, Ruth a widow, and Mary a virgin. It seems scandalous to put the Theotokos in a list that includes a prostitute and yet the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew does just that. He tells us that among the ancestors of Christ is a prostitute—and a pagan prostitute at that. Nevertheless, for all their differences, all three were called by God and all three said “Yes!” to that call.
Looking at the list of ancestors we also see adulators and murders, men who are weak in faith and even apostates. Yet all played their part in preparing humanity to receive the Son of God.
This isn’t to say that all said “Yes!” to God.
Some, like the Theotokos, said yes immediately. Others, like David and Solomon, at some point, said “No!” to God but in time came to say “Yes!” And still others, too numerous to name, never repented, never allowed the grace of God to transform their “No!” into a “Yes!”
And yet, whether they said yes or no, God used them to bring about the salvation of the human race. We lost nothing because of them, in saying “No!” they lost everything. For us who are in Christ, “all things work together for the good” (Romans 8:28) even the unrepentance of others.
This isn’t to suggest we live in a moral free zone where we can do what we wish; there is such a thing as sin and there are even, as the Apostle John says, gradations of sin. “All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death” (1 John 5:17, NKJV).
No the diversity of starting points and the seeming diversity of paths Christ’s disciples have taken so they were “not only … called Christians” but were Christians as St Ignatius of Antioch says, reflects the sheer abundance of God’s holiness. We are called to live the life of God, a life that—as Uncreated—is One but when manifest in our lives must of necessity be pluriform.
There is always a temptation to sanitize the spiritual life, to think I need only live a life of conformity to moral or social norms as long as they are “Christian.” To live this way is to be blind to the great variety of spiritual gifts, and so ways of life, that are pleasing to God. This is what the Apostle Paul means when he tells us:
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness (Romans 12:3-8, NKJV).
To be holy means to share in the fullness of God’s life. And this means living a life that goes beyond whatever we can imagine for ourselves or each other.
This life of holiness not only requires that I say “Yes!” to God but, as both the Epistle and Gospel this morning make clear, that I prepare to say “Yes!” This is why we fast in the 40 days before Christmas, to prepare ourselves to say “Yes!” to God.
And when we say “Yes!” to God, what happens? We are transformed; we become not simply more than we are but who we are created to be. And for all the diversity of gifts and personalities we see in the Church, underneath that this there a common identity. We are disciples of Christ, called by Him to be His Apostles, witnesses to the Good News of His great love for mankind, a love that leads Him not only to become as we are so that we can become as He is but to suffer and die for us.
And in His dying, He conquers death and in His Rising bring us with Him to life everlasting!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us say “Yes!” to God and become who we are! Apostles and Evangelists of the New Born Christ Who will suffer and die for us and the whole human family so that we who are scattered and divided and broken and shattered may become one in Him Who is One with the Father!
Christ is Born!