The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 7 (2)

Our faith is not founded upon empty words; nor are we carried away by mere caprice or beguiled by specious arguments. On the contrary, we put our faith in words spoken by the Word himself at God’s command. God wished to win us back from disobedience, not by using force to reduce us to slavery but by addressing to our free will a call to liberty.

Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own humanity as the firstfruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way, and to make us look forward to receiving the same reward as he did, since we know that we possess the same humanity…We shall enter the kingdom of heaven, because while we lived on earth we acknowledged heaven’s King.

—Hippolytus, On the Refutation of All Heresies 10, 33-34

The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 7

How could he have given himself if he had not worn flesh? He offered his flesh and gave himself for us, in order that undergoing death in it, “He might bring to nothing the one who held the power of death, that is, the devil.” For this reason we continually give thanks in the name of Jesus Christ. We do not bring to nothing the grace which came to us through him. For the coming of the Savior in the flesh has been the ransom and salvation of all creation.

—Athanasius, Letter to Adelphus

The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 6 (2)

It is as if God the Father sent upon the earth a purse full of his mercy. This purse was burst open during the Lord’s passion to pour forth its hidden contents—the price of our redemption. It was only a small purse, but it was very full. As the Scriptures tell us: “A little child has been given to us, but in him who dwells with the fullness of the divine nature.” The fullness of time brought with it the fullness of divinity. God’s Son came in the flesh so that mortals could see and recognize God’s kindness. When God reveals his humanity, his goodness cannot possibly remain hidden…How could he have shown his mercy more clearly than by taking on himself our condition? We should stop thinking of our own sufferings and remember what he has suffered. The lesser he became through his human nature, the greater was his goodness; the more he lowered himself for me, the dearer he is to me…He has given us a most wonderful proof of his goodness by adding humanity to his own divine nature.

—Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 1 for Epiphany

The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 6

When Isaac himself carried the wood for the sacrifice of himself, in this, too, he prefigured Christ our Lord, who carried his own cross to the place of his passion. On this mystery much had already been foretold by the prophets: “And his government shall be upon his shoulders.” Christ, then, had the government upon his shoulders when he carried his cross with wonderful humility. Not unfittingly does Christ’s cross signify government: by it the devil is conquered and the whole world recalled to the knowledge and grace of Christ.

—Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 84.3

The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 4

He chose to lack for himself, that he may abound for all. The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins. Therefore, Lord Jesus, I owe more to your suffereings because I was redeemed than I do to works for which I was created. You see that he is in swaddling clothes. You do not see that he is in heaven. You hear the cries of an infant, you do not hear the lowing of an ox recognizing its Master, for the ox knows his Owner and the donkey his Master’s crib.

—Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke: 2:41-42

The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 3

He was a baby and a child, so that you may be a perfect human. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death. He was in a manger, that you may be at the altar. He was on earth that you may be in the stars. He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens. He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you may be rich. Therefore his poverty is our inheritance, and the Lord’s weakness is our virtue.

—Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 2:41-42

The Twelve Days of Christmas-Day 1

Once again this year, as my Christmas gift to you, I am going to post excerpts from the wisdom of the ancient commentators on the Incarnation of God. I will be posting each day until January 5. May you find them as edifying as I have. Merry Christmas!

Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness. No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no one free from sin, came to free us all.

—Prayer from Leo the Great

Christmas: Light Shining in the Darkness (or the Beginning of the End of our Exile)

Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of tonight’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; Canticle—from Isaiah 11.1-9; Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! Tonight we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Accordingly, I want us to look at what that means so that we can all  develop a realistic and biblical view of Christmas that will help sustain us in the living of our days, as opposed to a sentimental and unrealistically false view of what Christmas is all about.

In his magnificent prologue to his gospel, St. John tells us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. To be sure, we all know about the darkness but we’re not so sure about the light. We know, for example, about the latest terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin or the bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Egypt. We shake our heads when we read of a road rage incident that claimed the life of a three-year old child. These are but the latest examples of a stream of news that make us mourn over the fact that the forces of evil and their human minions (the darkness) are alive and well in God’s world.

And then there is the darkness in our own lives. It might be an extramarital affair or the betrayal at the deepest level of a friend’s trust. It might come in the form of pornography addiction or drug or alcohol addiction. It might be the darkness of losing a loved one to death or divorce, or the darkness of loneliness that makes us feel we are all alone in the world with no one to help see us through. The list goes on and on, making us wonder if John didn’t have it backwards in his gospel—the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has overcome it.

This, I suspect, is where many of us really are when it comes to Christmas. We are enculturated to believe that somehow at Christmas time, all the problems of the world will magically disappear. We sing about comfort and joy and dream of a White Christmas with all its cozy trappings, but experience something quite different. And especially in the West where we have made the values of the Enlightenment our king, pinning our hope and trust on human reason and the steady advancement of technology and science to cure all that ails us, we are skeptical that Christmas is anything more than an attempt to create a pleasant diversion. In other words, we tend to dismiss the promise of the gospel as ineffectual and wishful thinking. If God were really good to his word, he’d clean up this mess with a mighty act of power and rid the world of all that ails it and us. And then another mass murder occurs, another natural disaster strikes. Evil rears its ugly head and we don’t know what to do with it. We continue to have our blue Christmases where all is not right with the world, at least our world, and we don’t know where to turn.

I trust by the glazed look in your eyes and the fact that some of you are taking ice picks to your head, I have gotten you in the proper Christmas spirit with this uplifting message so far. Take heart. I am not trying to be Scrooge to you tonight and rain on your Christmas parade. I am simply asking us to read the Good News of Jesus Christ with eyes wide open to the state of affairs in God’s good but corrupted world. When we have a realistic view of evil, and when we realize that the story of Scripture is the story of how God has returned to his world in and through Jesus and the power of the Sprit to restore it and us to our original goodness, i.e., that our loving God really is concerned about justice, we are ready to hear the good news of the Christmas story and believe it to be more than sentimental claptrap.

We start with our OT lesson this evening. The prophet Isaiah had previously warned his people that the unthinkable will happen to them, that one day they will be forced into exile and made to live under the oppression of a cruel enemy. The only way for this to happen, of course, was for God to abandon his people and vacate the Temple in Jerusalem, the very place where Israel believed heaven and earth intersected. And since God’s people would be going into exile, this was the terrifying conclusion of Isaiah’s prophecy. God would indeed abandon his people.

But now the prophet tells them of the day when messengers will bring the good news that God is returning to restore and comfort them, defeating their enemies and setting up his reign on earth as in heaven. In other words, God promises to return to his people and restore his justice so that all really will be well. And as we learn from our OT Canticle this evening, God will do this through his Messiah, God’s specially anointed person who will defeat the dark powers and bring about the healing of the nations. When that happens, new creation breaks out and the corruption and evil of the world will be forever destroyed, and we can enjoy living in the presence of God with all the goodness God intended for us in the first place. Who in their right mind would not long for this vision?

This brings us to our gospel lesson tonight. John tells us that in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, God has returned to his people to put them to rights, but not in the pillars of cloud and fire as he did when he rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. No, God has entered his world just like the rest of us—through our mother’s birth canal—to heal and restore us along with God’s creation that evil has corrupted. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. John does not tell us how and why the darkness has not overcome the light of Christ shining in his world, but he does so later in his gospel. What is critical for us to see at this point in the story is that God is not some absentee and uncaring landlord who has abandoned us to our own devices. Despite our sin and alienation from God, despite our consistent rebellion and our failure to be his faithful image-bearing creatures in the manner God created us, God has returned, in fulfillment of OT prophecy, to dwell with us and to heal and release us from our slavery to sin and death, i.e., to restore justice to his world. This is exactly what the writer of Hebrews wants us to understand. You want to see the character and heart of God, say John and the writer of Hebrews? Look carefully at Jesus and you will learn how you can find forgiveness, healing, and new life. Why? Because the Lord God has returned to his people as one of us to free us! The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

But why has the darkness not overcome the light? Because of the cross and resurrection. Without Good Friday and Easter, Christmas truly is nothing but airy sentimentality and we are bound to suffer blue Christmases because the dark powers have not been overthrown and we are still in our sins, alienated from God. But as Paul tells us, in Jesus’ death, God condemned our sin in the flesh, bearing his just condemnation himself so that we would be spared (Romans 8.1-4). Here is justice enacted with mercy at its finest. The cross reminds us that God will not tolerate sin forever and has acted to do something about it in Jesus, the light shining in the darkness. Not only did God address the madness of our sin, God defeated the powers and principalities on the cross so as to bring an end to their dominion over the earth. This is deeply enigmatic to us because as John reminds us, the darkness, while not overcoming the light of Christ, God-with-us, is sure putting up a good fight! But the resurrection of Christ testifies to us that what happened on the cross was indeed the end of the old order of darkness, sin, and death, and the beginning of God’s new world, a world in which the original goodness of creation is restored—and more. God had to enter human history as a human to deal with our sins, and this is why we can sing “Joy to the world” at Christmas, even in the midst of our own darkness and the darkness of this world. God has won the decisive victory for us himself. God has addressed the deadly consequences of our sins so that we can be his true image-bearers again who reflect God’s goodness and glory out into the world. Certainly, the victory is not yet consummated. But as we saw during the season of Advent, it will be when Christ returns so that there will no longer be any doubt as to who is Lord and King of God’s creation (cf. Philippians 2.5-11).

To be sure, there is much we do not understand in all this. For example, if God defeated the dark powers on the cross, why does God still allow evil to operate in his world? How has the cross defeated the dark powers? Nowhere does the Bible give us answers to these kinds of questions and we must assume that part of the reason is that the answer is simply above our pay grade.

Moreover, Scripture reminds us consistently that God often acts in ways that take us completely by surprise. For example, as Luke will tell us in our dismissal gospel tonight, God announced the Good News of the reestablishment of his rule on earth as in heaven in and through Jesus his Son, not to the power-brokers of the world—after all, Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because Caesar was flexing his political muscle and requiring folks to enroll in the census—but to shepherds, the losers of their day, in effect telling us not to be fooled as to who really is in charge. Acting in this way is not how the world understands power and we are consequently caught off guard when we encounter the story. However, this does not change the truth of the matter that God loves us and his world, and is actively involved in it to restore justice and make things right in and through Jesus. So let us have the needed humility to accept the fact that God is God and we are not (cf. Isaiah 55.6-11), and live accordingly with faith and hope.

Christmas, therefore, is the beginning of the culmination of God’s rescue of his good world and us from the dark powers, and we are called to have faith in this God who has acted strangely and decisively in his world through Jesus his Messiah to give us real hope—and be-cause of that victory, through folks like you and me to restore God’s rule on earth as in heaven. This is the way it was always meant to be and Jesus is still present with us in the power of the Spirit to heal and transform us to do the work he calls us to do, quirky and messy as that is.

And because God has fulfilled his promise to return to us and set things right in his world, we can celebrate Christmas with joy despite the darkness that often surrounds us. So, for example, for those of us who grieve the loss of loved ones to death, we can grieve as people with hope, confident that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we will one day be reunited with our loved ones, never to lose them again. Contrast this kind of grief to those who have no resurrection hope. How awful that must be! And when we read of fresh acts of terror and the like, we can be confident that because Jesus is Lord, and God has returned to set his world to rights, that their murderous acts will be met with justice, sometimes through the God-ordained governments that exist, and certainly at the end of time, when God will consummate his loving, just, and merciful rule. Whatever form the darkness takes, we are promised that in Jesus, God has made good on his promise to return to his people to set us free from that darkness. This the Good News we are to live and proclaim, now and for all eternity—if by the grace of God we have hearts and minds to believe. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Merry Christmas, my beloved! Rejoice and be glad because your King and Lord has been born! The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Christmas Message from Archbishop Beach

Received via email.

Merry Christmas!  On behalf of the bishops, the clergy, and the wonderful lay people of the Anglican Church in North America, “Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year” to you.
What a year we’ve just had!  All around the world, not just here in North America, we have seen tremendous events.  Events that have changed people’s lives, changed countries, changed the world.  Not just with elections, and new leaders, but with horrific events where innocent lives have been taken, Christians have been martyred just because they are followers of Jesus, and innocent people have been hurt.  But God is not surprised by all of this.  God is the author of human history, God entered human history, and God is over human history.
This was true in the first century as well.  When the Roman empire began to dominate the known world, God orchestrated human history so that His purposes would be fulfilled.  The birth of His son Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas, He orchestrated it at just the right time, to just the right person, to just the right family, to just the right tribe, in just the right city. And for just the right purpose, Jesus was born.  The gospel of Matthew puts it this way, in Matthew chapter 1, “Behold an Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel which means God with us.'”
The baby Jesus grew up to be a Jewish rabbi.  He taught, he preached, he healed; he did miraculous things in people’s lives and ultimately he died on a Roman cross to save people from their sins, and he rose from the dead. If he hadn’t died and rose again we wouldn’t be here celebrating Christmas.  That validated everything he did.  This was God’s plan to liberate the human race from sin, and the power of evil, and the power of destruction in people’s lives.  But this is a gift.  It’s God’s grace, and like any gift it must be received.
My son recently asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told him I wanted a kiteboarding kit.  That would be a kite, a board, and the harness.  Now if he went out and bought that, put it in a box, wrapped it up, put a nice bow on it, put my name on it, and put it under the Christmas tree it would be just sitting there until I received it, until I took it, until I made it my own.  And that’s the way it is with God’s gift.  He’s done this for us.  Jesus has died on the cross for our sins, he rose from the dead and gives us the promise of eternal life.  He promises forgiveness of our sins, and the power of the Holy Spirit in our life, but it’s a gift.  It must be received.  As the Apostle John said in John chapter one, verse twelve, “But to as many as received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to be the children of God.”  We must receive him, we must believe in him, we must receive the gift that God gives us at Christmas.
Nothing will change the events in our world until the human heart is changed, and only God can do this.  When Jesus enters into the human heart he transforms it.  He makes it holy.  He makes it righteous. He makes it full of himself.  When we receive Jesus into our life he does this, but it must begin with you; it must begin with me.  We must be willing to open ourselves to the presence of God in our life.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your heart and your mind in the knowledge and love of God and of his son Jesus Christ our Lord, and may the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be among you and remain with you always.  Amen.  Merry Christmas!
In Christ Jesus,
The Most Rev. Dr. Foley Beach
Archbishop and Primate, The Anglican Church in North America


Advent Antiphons—December 23

From The Book of Common Worship’s Times and Seasons (p.58).

These antiphons, or refrains, all beginning ‘O …’, were sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers, according to the Roman use, on the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (17–23 December). They are addressed to God, calling for him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a tapestry of scriptural titles and pictures that describe his saving work in Christ. In the medieval rite of Salisbury Cathedral that was widely followed in England before the Reformation, the antiphons began on 16 December and there was an additional antiphon (‘O Virgin of virgins’) on 23 December; this is reflected in the Calendar of The Book of Common Prayer, where 16 December is designated O Sapientia (O Wisdom). The Common Worship Calendar has adopted the more widely used form. It is not known when and by whom the antiphons were composed, but they were already in use by the eighth century.

23 December – O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

–cf Isaiah 7.14