Romanian Catholic Eparchy of St. George in Canton
Most Reverend John Michael Botean
on the occasion of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord,
Christmas, A.D. 2009
Bethlehem, make ready, for Eden has been opened for all;
Ephrata, be alert, for the Tree of Life has blossomed forth from the Virgin in the cave.
Her womb has become a spiritual paradise wherein the divine Fruit was planted—
and if we eat of it, we shall live and not die like Adam.
Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning.
(Troparion of the Preparation for Christmas)
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,
The opening words of the troparion of preparation for Christmas seem to be directed to a town in Judah, Bethlehem, also referred to in the prophecy of Micah as Ephrata (fruitful), but they are in fact addressed to us, Christians who believe that some 2,000 years ago an event of cosmic significance took place with the birth of Jesus. The imperative, "make ready," has a meaning for the Christian community and the individual Christian that goes far beyond its implications for any city, nation, or political entity. Charming as it may be to frame our celebration of Jesus’ birth around a Christmas card manger scene or a commercial, media-managed "spirit of Christmas," we fall far short of the grace available to us in this holiday if we limit ourselves to these lovely but empty images.
Even our English (and Romanian) translations of what may be the most beloved and well known of all carols, "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (Veniţi, Credincioşi) lack the urgency and straightforward command implied in the original Latin, Adeste Fideles: "Be there, be present, believers!"
Perhaps more than other holidays in our liturgical year, it is Christmas that compels us to "be there," to be present at an event, to witness something extraordinary and, thereafter, to be the "joyful and triumphant" witnesses of that event in its significance for our lives and the life of the world. It is therefore vital that we put on the eyes of faith if we are to see beyond what a passing, transitory culture would have us see in order to receive from our celebration all that God would give us.
We are so broken as individuals and as a culture! Yet our brokenness is something frightening and dreadful to behold, so much so that we tend to avert our eyes, refusing to look at anything beyond what is most superficial, at either the emptiness within us or the hollowness around us. We know that, in the end, there is little we can do to "cope" with this reality, so we find solace in escape and entertainment. Especially at this time of year, our loneliness and alienation drive us to desperate and frantic attempts at "togetherness" with family and friends, only to have our efforts reward us with a sense of failure to achieve what we set out for. As a result, we sometimes feel even more isolated and alienated than before. Once we experience the limited impact that all our careful shopping and holiday planning have had on our loved ones, once the familiar arguments and/or silences break out at our Christmas table, we are likely to feel even worse at holiday time than during the rest of the year. Is it any wonder that the holidays tend to be filled more than the rest of the year with episodes of suicide, crime, and rampant depression?
"Ephrata, be alert!" Adeste fideles! "Be there, believers!"
For us to be able to enter the joy of Christmas, we must be present to it. In the first place, that means we must be present to ourselves. It means an honest look at ourselves, an "examination of consciousness," if you will, as well as an examination of conscience. We must think about what we are thinking about; we need to "pay attention to what has our attention," as author David Allen phrases it. We must also feel what it is we are feeling, be present to our emotions as well as to our thoughts, to our hearts as well as to our minds. These are the tools we have we have at our disposal in order to be present to ourselves and not live our lives in a state of semi-trance, lacking self-awareness. In our spiritual lives as well as in most everything else we do, just "showing up" is 90% of the job.
The Fathers and Mothers of the Church called this process of "minding our minds"nepsis, which means "vigilance" or "wakefulness," and it requires courage and an effort of the will. We need to choose to be present to ourselves and not be afraid of what we will encounter when we take a look. It is hard work. Keeping watch at the gate of mind and heart is not something one can do without a focused attention to what is going on inside as well as what is trying to gain access to us from the outside. It takes practice, and, like everything else worth doing, it takes commitment and sacrifice if one is to reap any of the rewards of our efforts.
Knowing our need for redemption is what makes us capable of receiving a redeemer. The world does not know or recognize its need for redemption, nor can it. It is only the human person who is the vessel of emptiness capable of this kind of awareness, of such presence to itself in its longing for wholeness, peace, beauty, and lost love, that is capable of receiving God.
And so the troparion speaks to us—you and me—in its summons to be present to the mystery of Bethlehem. "Eden has been opened for all," it says, and the fruit of Mary’s womb takes the place of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the tree from which Adam and Eve partook of that fatal first taste of emptiness. But now "Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning." Taking on our human predicament along with our human nature, God restores in us this lost likeness to Him. As love is what constitutes our likeness to God (since God is Love: see 1 John 4:8) we can say God restores in us the love that was lost in the beginning.
Because our likeness—love—has been lost, it must be restored. Christ accomplishes this work of restoration in our nature by his birth in Bethlehem, but it remains for us to choose to appropriate this restoration for ourselves, to choose to put love where love is not, moment in and moment out. We who have been baptized into Christ have made a pledge to do this, to set aside the loveless and vain works of Satan—evil, violence, enmity, and revenge—and to unite ourselves to the One who has restored us to the nature intended for us by our creator. We have made a vow, renewed at every moment of Eucharistic communion, to replace the works of Satan with the loving and fruitful works of Christ: goodness, nonviolence, peace, and forgiveness.
To be present to our true selves, then, means to be present in person at Bethlehem, with all our weakness, hurt, and disappointment in life, and to let a little child lead us into a kingdom not of this world. It means to allow the values of this heavenly kingdom to replace the values of an earthly one, and not to allow our brokenness to dominate us, rule us, destroy the infinite beauty of us.
I said before that the world cannot know its need for redemption, and this is so because it mistakes our fallen nature for the truth of who we are: forgiven, redeemed, and restored heirs of God’s kingdom. Consequently, it vainly attempts to repair the wounds in our humanity by false and fallen means. It seeks to overcome evil with evil, to create peace by means of violence, to restore justice with the tools of revenge, and in the process, deludes itself and us into thinking that it is providing for the one thing it can never achieve: immortality in the face of our inevitable death.
Only the God who made us knows who we really are and what we are made of—and made for. Only God knows that we are made by divinity for divinity. So that we, too, might know who we are and what our destiny is, God has willed that His communication, His Word, become a human word in the flesh of Jesus born of Mary, a tiny baby (as we all once were) who grows up to preach the Sermon on the Mount, beginning in the Gospel according to St. Matthew with "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matthew 5:3) and including "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). (St. Luke’s Gospel expands on and defines this understanding of God’s perfection in its parallel version of this sermon: "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). God’s perfection is mercy.)
It is the incarnation of God that is the divinization of our flesh, the restoration of our fallen human nature. To be present in Bethlehem is to choose to be divinized ourselves, for we do have a choice whether to accept the restoration of our nature for ourselves or to allow it to languish in its fallen-ness and sin and grief.
The miracle of Christmas is that when we show up at the manger in the cave in Bethlehem, we find that we are no longer alone. Following the star, we find ourselves in a constellation of millions of stars like us in God’s heaven, stars whose lights, like our own, have been kindled from the one light that shines forth from the cave of our homelessness today, but tomorrow will shine forth from the grave of our resurrection.
When we show up at the cave we also find that we have been given gifts beyond our imagination: in place of alienation and isolation, we have been given communion with one another and with our Source; in place of justice we have been given mercy; we receive resurrection as a gift in place of the mere survival we try to eke out for ourselves.
Moreover, our citizenship has been transferred to a new realm, one in which the laws and rules are different from the land with which we are familiar. A sign of Satan’s perennial wish to become our god is the tendency of Caesar to want to become the judge of what is good and what is evil, whether through laws that are understood to equate what is moral with what is legal, or through the mass hysteria of political, cultural, and social movements that insist that what everyone is doing must be right, because everyone is doing it (as if that were even logical). In our day, now that mass behavior can be engineered through deception and propaganda (in a word, "marketing"), it has become quite clear that it is not only Caesar that threatens to become the idol before which a pinch of incense must be burned (as was demanded of the early martyrs). The myths of "progress" and of the "invisible hand of the marketplace" are equally insidious and deadly in our modern pantheon of false deities.
The rules and laws of the Kingdom whose capital is Bethlehem demand of us lives consistent with our true nature, a nature which is in the process of divinization rather decay, the process governing the kingdom of this world. Among the laws of God’s Kingdom, the law of forgiveness holds a special place. In the Philokalia, a collection of texts second in importance only to the Bible in the Christian library, St. Mark the Ascetic writes, "The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world." Our capacity to forgive is the test of our love and therefore the test of our likeness to God and of our fellowship with Him.
St. Mark goes on: "We cannot with all our heart forgive someone who does us wrong unless we possess real knowledge. For this knowledge shows us that we deserve all we experience." Where do we get such knowledge? We begin by going to Bethlehem and bringing our brokenness with us. There, first of all, we can see "such love [with which] the Lord loved the world." We also learn that everyone else around the manger: shepherds and magi, indeed, but also doctors, lawyers, priests, parents, beggars, and thieves all share the same brokenness. Along with this comes the certainty "that we deserve all we experience." In other words, every human being stands in need of mercy, not only for what we have done, but also for what is done to us.
It is not without reason that in the Divine Liturgy we do not say, "Lord, have justice," for we all know what that would lead to if God granted our prayer! Instead, we cry over and over "Lord, have mercy!" It is mercy we need, not justice, and each one of us shares this in common with every other poor soul on the planet. Justice is what we require of civil society; mercy is what we need from God and one another.
The laws of this world enjoin us to do no harm to another person. The laws of Bethlehem’s Kingdom go much further and command us to love as Christ has loved. This law goes so far beyond the other that it requires love even for the one who has done us, or wants to do us, harm.
Many of you already know that we have a concrete case before us in which we can practice and carry out this commandment of loving forgiveness and prove ourselves citizens of Heaven. I could speak of the situation of our Church in Romania, where there are those who continue to persecute us, who deprive us of our civil, legal, and moral rights and who wish us to be erased from the map of Romanian culture and religion. However, I will not do that, since we in the United States do not suffer this kind of persecution, and I will not read moral lessons to those who do. I will likewise refrain from commenting on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere, not to mention victims of Christians who themselves rain terror, death, and destruction on a massive scale upon non-Christians. I lack the moral pulpit from which to preach the virtue of forgiveness to those who suffer harm in these situations, which, grave as they are, are not contexts in which you and I would be the ones morally entitled to forgive anyone.
The situation I wish to address in this letter is one in which we are the aggrieved party, and it is considerably more banal than the others. Sometime after 1:00 a.m. on the morning of December 15, someone set fire to the ?opru, the roofed, wooden dance floor or gazebo, that had been a part of the exhibit of Maramures art and architecture belonging to our diocese and installed on the grounds of our cathedral along with the wooden church of St. Panteleimon and other works of art. The gazebo was completely destroyed; thanks be to God, no one was hurt and the church itself was untouched. There is speculation that this fire was created as a diversion in order to carry out another act of arson at another church about three miles away, committed perhaps as an act of revenge against that church.
Now, how do you judge this situation and the person or persons responsible for it? From the perspective of the manger in Bethlehem, that is, how do you judge? From the vantage point of the "real knowledge" of which St. Mark the Ascetic speaks, how do you perceive? What are you thinking right now about the arsonist(s)? What are youfeeling about him/her/them? What preconceived notions and prejudices (for we all have them) did you conjure up in your mind when you first heard of this vandalism? What would you do to the vandals, if you had the chance? What would you like to see happen to them? What do you think should happen to them?
From the vantage point of the great world capitals, of Rome or Constantinople or Washington or Bucharest, what should happen to them is clear. The perpetrator(s) of such wanton destruction should be apprehended, tried, and punished. But from the vantage point of Bethlehem, what do you think should happen to them?
Regarding the arsonists from the vantage point of the manger, what do you see? Do you see criminals, thugs, or delinquents who merit only punishment and pain, or do you see children of God, persons of infinite value and tremendous beauty who have already had enough experience of pain and punishment to render them capable of carrying out such an act as this, minor as it is in the chronicle of human evil. Bring your own brokenness to Bethlehem and ask yourself, candidly, "Am I really a better person than the arsonists? By whose standards, other than my own? In the eyes of the Infant in the manger, am I really somehow more deserving of mercy and love and forgiveness than they are?"
As the kingdom of this world measures these things, we have lost about $60,000 worth of material and talented, loving labor, not to mention the product of an incalculable amount of generosity, dedication, and good will on the part of the benefactors who made installing the gazebo possible. It is a considerable loss, indeed, for a community as poor as ours. But how do wood and wealth measure up in comparison to a human being, a human soul? In committing this act, what have the arsonists done to themselves? What have they lost? In the economy of the Kingdom of Bethlehem, they have suffered the far greater loss as a result of this tragedy.
Adeste, fideles! Be there, believers, in the Kingdom of your God! Now is the time to "stand up" for your beliefs and get down on your knees to pray, as victims, for our victimizers. Today we sing, "Your nativity, Christ-God, shed upon the world the light of knowledge" (troparion of Christmas). Today we have an inestimable opportunity to stand up for the truth as we know it by committing one great, all-encompassing act of forgiveness. We can do this because of the grace of divinity in us, who are the mystical Body of the One in the manger. What a chance for grace! What an opportunity to give testimony in the truly supreme court of God’s justice!
These opportunities do not come every day, and so I am writing to you now, Christmas day, to urge you to join with me in prayer specifically for those who committed this crime against us, to adopt them as objects of our special spiritual concern and love, to forgive them from the heart for what they have done. I urge you equally to beware: as long as there is any bitterness, enmity, or the desire for revenge in your heart, these arsonists will have succeeded in burning down a great deal more than a wooden gazebo.
To further this spiritual enterprise, I ask our pastors to find some way at each celebration of the Eucharist, that is, each celebration of our communion with Jesus, to pray for those who have offended us in this arson as Jesus prayed for his crucifiers. Even if it be only a commemoration in the Great Entrance, we need to keep before us this reminder of our spiritual task. I ask also that this prayer be kept up until Easter, along with the prayer that we may be convinced of the spiritual truth and power of what this prayer is about.
When the time came to consecrate our wooden church, I asked one of the saints in heaven to give it his special protection and patronage so that it might become a true place of pilgrimage, healing, and peace. For this, it seemed to me appropriate to choose St. Panteleimon, the martyr and unmercenary healer, although, truth be told, I suspect that St. Panteleimon chose the church for himself. In his lifetime, this saint’s name was never Panteleimon, which means "all-merciful." His name was Pantaleonta. A voice from heaven gave him the name "Panteleimon" after he forgave the man who had been trying unsuccessfully to behead him. In the Kingdom of Bethlehem, you see, it was the case that the executioner’s sword could not sever the saint’s head until Panteleimon himself pronounced words of forgiveness in imitation of his redeemer and Lord.
In closing, I would like to share with you, for your reflection, a Christmas greeting God sent through some friends in California while I was writing this letter:
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
The Executive Board of the Society of St. John Chrysostom-Western Region
wishes you a blessed feast of the Nativity
of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ!
This, Now, is the day of peace! Today! This present Day!
"This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;
This is the night of the Most Gentle One – Let no one be cruel;
This is the night of the Humble One – Let no one be proud.
Now is the day of joy – Let us not revenge;
Now is the day of Good Will – Let us not be mean.
In this Day of Peace – Let us not be conquered by anger.
Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.
This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.
Today the DIVINE BEING took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY."
St. Isaac the Syrian (d. AD 700)
In the name of St. Panteleimon, the "all-merciful," and of his all-merciful Master, I beg all of you to join together in mercy. Let the oil of your prayer cover our arsonists, whoever they are, with its healing power. Only we can do this for them, and so we must. In this way, and only in this way, can we make visible in our own flesh the Merciful One who became flesh for our sake. This is why we are a church and not some other kind of institution that, like all others, will pass away. It is our vocation and destiny. It is our duty as citizens of an eternal kingdom
We have spent a whole Christmas lent preparing for mercy to come to our world. Now it is time for us to get up and follow the star to Bethlehem. May He who is born this day grant us all, together with those who do us harm, the peace that only He can give.
Your brother in Christ-God,
+ John Michael, a sinner
Bishop of St. George in Canton