Sermon delivered the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ.
During this season of anticipation, we hear many familiar Christmas hymns. We live in a culture dominated by Western religious tradition. Therefore, we may know some of its songs better than our own. One of those hymns is "Silent Night" and one of the powerful phrases in this beautiful hymn is "Christ the Savior is born." These words are particularly relevant today, liturgically titled the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, because we learn why we call Jesus Christ our Savior and what He is coming to save us from.
In the Gospel passage, Matthew 1:1-25, the first eighteen verses are devoted to a selective recount of Jesus' genealogy. The next seven verses are devoted to the events occurring shortly before the birth of Jesus. We hear that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit of God and Joseph, her husband, wants to put her away quietly so she may not be publicly scorned, persecuted or even killed because of her apparent transgression. Before He can do this, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph to explain what has happened and tell him what to do. The angel says that the child's name will be "Jesus" for He will save His people from their sins (v.21).
So there you have it, we call Jesus of Nazareth, "Savior" because He will save His people from their sins. In fact, the name "Jesus" literally means "God saves." Thus, what we call the Incarnation, or literally the "enfleshment", is the second person of the Holy Trinity, the eternal Word and Son of God, taking on human flesh of the ever-Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Holy Trinity). It is an important event not only because it is the beginning of the earthly life of Jesus, but because it affirms the inherent goodness of human nature and by extension, the rest of creation. It is the beginning of a cosmic renewal, the remaking of the whole world.
However, the salvation of mankind cannot happen against our own will. It cannot be forced upon us. Mary could have said no to God's invitation/command through the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). But she said yes, "Let it be to me according to your word" (v.38). As we hear today, Joseph could have still put away his pregnant fiancée, even after the angel told him what to do. But after Joseph awoke from sleep, "he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took her as his wife" (Matthew 1:24). In other words, both Mary and Joseph were freely obedient to the Lord to help enact His plan for saving the world from sin.
Returning to the theme of Christ's genealogy, the Sunday before Christmas is also called the Sunday of the Holy Ancestors or the Holy Fathers of Christ. The title makes sense, but why we celebrate them may be not so obvious. After all Christ earthly pedigree is traced through Joseph's ancestors and He is not even blood-related. He is not the earthly, paternal father of Jesus.
More confusing is the fact that today's reading is from Matthew but the Synaxarion refers the genealogy recounted in the Gospel of Luke. Despite the somewhat contradictory information, the main message is that God worked throughout the numerous generations from Adam to Abraham to David to Joseph to help prepare the way, to help prepare His people for the coming of the Messiah through the person of the Virgin Mary. She is the culmination of this cooperation between God and mankind for she is called the "blossom" from the race of Abraham and the tribe of David (Theotokion 1st Ode). She is also called the "flower" that blossoms with life for all (4th Stichera Hymn of Vespers).
In the hymnology of today's feast also highlights four additional people as examples of this preparation. They are Daniel the Prophet and the Three Holy Youths. Allow me to share with you the full text of some of the hymns and listen carefully to the message within these poetic and powerful words:
Rejoicing in the dew of the Spirit as in raindrops, the Children of God walked in the midst of the flame, thus prefiguring the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ; and wise through Faith they quenched the power of fire; while Daniel the just appeared as a tamer of lions. Entreated by their prayers, O Savior who loves mankind, deliver us also from the unquenchable and everlasting fire, and grant that we may reach Your heavenly Kingdom.
The faithful and holy Children, when in the furnace of the flame of fire as in a dew, mystically prefigured your coming from the Virgin, which blazed for us yet did not burn. While Daniel the just, and wonderful among the Prophets, clearly foreshadowed for all your divine second coming. In his vision he cried and said that thrones were set, the judge had taken his seat and the river of fire appeared; from which, O Christ, may we be delivered by their prayers. (5th & 6th Stichera Hymns of Vespers)
Calling Christ the Savior is important but more important is calling Him "Our Savior" or "My Savior". In other words, we must personalize our relationship with Him because He not only came to save mankind in general but more importantly Christ was born to save each one of us. I conclude with two more hymns that express this beautifully:
All-blameless Virgin, living Palace of God, you contained within yourself Him whom the heavens cannot contain; beyond understanding you gave birth to him in the Cave, a beggar and incarnate, that He might make me divine and enrich me, made a beggar by the incontinence of bitter eating. (1st Stichera Hymn of Vespers)
Through compassion enrolled with slaves, long-suffering Christ, by Caesar's decree, you came to give freedom, life and deliverance to ungrateful servants, who worship Your saving Nativity, for you have come to save our souls. (2nd Stichera Hymn of Vespers).
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.