As I pulled into the Church parking lot this morning, I noticed the protestors once again, as many of you also did, on the sidewalk on Broadmoor St., picketing Reformation Lutheran Church across the street. As we all know, the most notorious abortionist in this city - and certainly one of the most notorious abortionists in the country - is a member of this neighboring congregation. As we were serving Matins this morning, it dawned on me how ironic it is that today, even as they gather to protest and picket, we, in the Orthodox Church are celebrating the Conception of John the Baptist. Note - we are celebrating not his birth, but his conception.
I think most of you know the story can be found in the gospel of Luke. I'm not going to read it to you because it's rather long. It's quite interesting, though, so I encourage you to open your bibles to the first chapter of the gospel of Luke and read it for yourselves. But there are a couple of features about his parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, his parents that I want to draw to your attention.
They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child because Elizabeth was barren and they were both well advanced in years.
Today we don't really feel the impact of this. In our society, if a husband and wife want to have children and they can't, we recognize that this is a sad situation, and we have all kinds of technology available to us to try to artificially induce conception. But in ancient Judah, it was a far different situation. It wasn't just a matter of a couple wanting to have a child and therefore feeling entitled to have what they desire. (We have a belief in modern America that if you want to have something, you should be able to have it). But in the ancient biblical culture there was much more to it than this. It was considered a reproach for a married woman to be childless; she was shamed, and it was truly a tragic situation. So, not only were Zacharias and Elizabeth sad at their inability to have a child, Elizabeth was shamed among her sisters, among her neighbors, because of her barrenness.
We know from Luke's account that the angel Gabriel came to Zacharias and told him this message, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for you prayer is heard and your wife, Elizabeth, shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name John." Unfortunately for Zacharias, he doubted the word of Gabriel, so Gabriel struck him dumb until the day when the child was born. But nonetheless, after those days, his wife Elizabeth sure enough conceived. And she hid herself for five months, saying "Thus the Lord hath dealt with me in the days when he looked upon me to take away my reproach among men."
So Elizabeth conceived. What did she conceive? Or should I say, whom did she conceive? Yes, John! The Church doesn't celebrate today the conception of a blastocyst, we don't celebrate the formation of a zygote, we don't rejoice over the formation of an embryo, we are not commemorating the conception of a fetus, we are celebrating the conception of John. John, the person, was conceived on that day!
What a marvel it is, what a blessing it is to be Orthodox and to celebrate - almost naively, or should I say, without shame - a conception. We all know what it takes for human beings to conceive; we're celebrating a conception today! How blessed are we to be Orthodox! Every time we enter a church, what do we see but the image of mother and child before us?
In this society, it is easy for us to begin to be tricked by arguments, by sophistry,such as: "What does it really take to be a person?" or "when do you become a person?" All these kinds of artificial distinctions are swept away by our commemoration of John's conception!
Yes, we celebrate today the conception of a person. There is further evidence in scripture that supports this. Some months later, the angel Gabriel was sent on another visit. He went to a town called Nazareth to visit a virgin named Mary. And after Mary conceived, what did she do? She went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. "So Mary arose in those days and went with haste to the hill country to the city of Judah and entered the house of Zacharias and Elizabeth. And it happened that when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe in her womb leaped for joy."
What's the point? Does John just happen to be an active little guy kicking around? It's much more than that! John, even in the womb, is manifesting his prophetic gift. He recognizes the arrival of the virgin Theotokos and rejoices at the coming of the Savior. Blastocysts don't do that, zygotes don't do that, embryos don't do that, fetuses don't do that, - persons do that! John rejoiced at the coming of Mary bearing Christ in her womb.
So, how is it that we, as a culture, have forgotten such basic things, such important things? I think we have to remember that legal abortion was something that was imposed on us. You are aware that we Americans never got the chance to vote for it. No legislature decided that this should indeed be the law of the land. A very few men, sitting on the Supreme Court, made the decision. They suddenly came to the conclusion that the right of privacy guarantees a woman's right to an abortion.
By the way, what is the right of privacy constitutionally? There is really no such thing. What the Bill of Rights enshrines is the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures by the civil authorities. This somehow was extended to mean that therefore, a woman has a right to privacy and an absolute right to do whatever she pleases with the child in her womb without any legal consequence. Therefore she has a right to kill her unborn child if she so decides. What a legal charade! It was a curious leap in constitutional logic to say the least. But in a sense, I believe, it had to be imposed on us. It never would have been chosen this way. And I think there is a reason.
I've been pondering a horrible thought lately. Basically, I'm beginning to draw the conclusion that our culture of immorality and fornication demands a sacrifice. We are guilty and we know it. And how do we compensate for our guilt? We compensate in the same way that the ancient Canaanites did. What did the Canaanites do? They had temple prostitution and fertility cults that ritualized fornication. What sacrifices did this demand? The lives of their children. They sacrificed them to their gods. So we too, in this society, are in the dirty business of sacrificing children, our unborn children, to the gods of our pleasures and satisfactions. We must have our fornication. And to compensate for our guilt, we are willing to sacrifice the fruit of those fornications, to offer our children to a modern-day Moloch.
I know there are those who in good Christian conscience say, "Well, the issue should not be a legal issue; it is an issue of conscience and a person must be spiritually enlightened to recognize that this is wrong. We can't coerce others to our sense of Orthodox Christian morality. Abortion should not be a matter of law." But the point is this, my brothers and sisters: it is always the business of the law to protect the innocent from the evil intentions of others. Why should the unborn be exempt from that protection? The innocent child of the womb deserves the protection of the law just as each and every one of us walking the face of the earth deserves the protection of law from those who would wish to harm us.
Right now in our nation, we are experiencing a time of great moral indignation about what happened in New York City and Washington, DC. Not only has our soil been violated, not only have we been attacked by enemies, there's another fundamental principle that outrages us more than these things. What is it? It's that so many innocent people died. They were innocent; they were going about their way, doing their business. And then they were suddenly blown to smithereens. Shouldn't the innocent child in the womb be deemed worthy of that same protection? Where is our moral outrage about the six thousand unborn children who are put to death every single day in this country? We rightly lament the six thousand who lost their lives in the World Trade Center, but each and every day 6,000 innocent unborn children are sacrificed to the gods of fornication and we go about our lives just as if everything was normal and "A-ok."
Right now, we are in the process of amassing a tremendous display of military might. The American war machine is gearing up to focus on and attack an enemy that is somehow outside of us. Somewhere, over there, in Afghanistan or some other place, there is an enemy and we're all focused on him. We've all come together; all the television news programs cry out "America United!" We are united as one in our common focus on the enemy outside of us. Yet we fail to recognize the enemy within. And I'm not talking about some feminists over here or some gay liberationists over there. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the enemy that is right at the very heart and core of our culture and affects each and every one of us.
It was ironic last week. One of the protestors across the street accosted one of our one of our young mothers in our community, a mother with four children, and was harassing her as she was attempting to pull into our parking lot. Here's a mother living the very principles that we embody in our Church and to which we testify as a faith. To be harassed like that is completely and totally unjust.
Yet I don't condemn them for what they're doing - maybe you do. I don't necessarily agree with their methods but I cannot condemn them. Because we either stand on one side or the other. Either we recognize, and value, and uphold the sanctity of human life from conception on (and, if you come to the altar today to receive the Holy Eucharist, that's what you're doing on this "Feast of the Conception of John the Baptist"), or we're on the other side and we say, "There is nothing to celebrate here. We are talking about a disposable blob of tissue, not John the Baptist." Which will it be?
I invite you to celebrate with me, with our Bishop BASIL, with our Archdiocese, with the whole Orthodox world, today, the sanctity of the human life, the sanctity of the person - the conception of John the Baptist. Through the prayers of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John, May Jesus Christ our God have mercy upon us and save us.
This sermon was given by Fr. Paul O'Callaghan is the pastor of St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Wichita, Kansas. Reprinted with permission of the author.