From Bethlehem to Calvary

Feast of St Melania the Younger, Nun of Rome

Nativity_Square_3.jpgCHRIST IS BORN in Bethlehem of Judea. And the angels sing and proclaim the Divine glory, and declare unto earth peace. But to the heavenly good news of peace, the earthly men respond with a gnashing of hatred, suspicion and malice. The very threshold of the Bethlehem cave was sprinkled by an innocent blood, by the blood of the innocent infants slaughtered for Christ’s sake by the order of Herod. The lamentation of Rachel weeping for her children interferes with the doxology of the Angelic hosts, and instead of a song of peace one hears on earth the weeping and loud lamentation, an inconsolable groaning and sighing. It is an anticipation of the innocent blood, which had to be shed for many, for the remission of sins. The Divine Infant, the Prince of Peace, is born into a world of sin, and sorrow, and lamentation. He has at once to suffer on Himself the whole weight of the worldly unjustice and hatred.

From the City of David, He, the Son of David, has to flee into Egypt, to escape the anger of Herod and of those who seek Him in order to destroy Him. It is already at this early season that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. “His own received Him not . . .” And from the far East come the Wise Men, the Magi, guided by a mysterious star, and bring to the newborn Jesus their rich and kingly, but funeral gifts. “And opening their treasures they offered Him gifts of gold, frankinsence and myrrh.” The Church sings at Christmas: “Today God by the star leads the Magi to worship, foretelling through gold, myrrh and frankinsense His three-day burial.” The Magi from the East prefigure and anticipate the noble Joseph and Nicodemus who have buried His pure Body and offered Him the funeral gifts, the perfume and the spices. The sorrow and silence of the Good Friday are already mysteriously inscribed in the joyful solemnity of Christmas. It is not just an accident that at the Proskomidia the Paten [or Diskos] symbolizes at once the Bethlehem cave, and the cave of the burial, in which the Crucified Lord takes rest in His flesh. Triumphant joy and ineffable sorrow are melted together, sweetness and bitterness, the Divine condescendence and the human blindness, the Peace of God and man’s rebellion, the Love Divine and human commotion. Christ is born for a life of suffering and sorrow: “The Man of Sorrows,” the Lamb of God who takes upon Himself the sin of the world. The way of the Cross begins. But it is by the Cross that ultimate Joy enters the world. It is by the tree of the Cross that the bonds of sin are rent asunder and the power of sin and death broken. The mystery of Christmas is completed and fulfilled in the Resurrection, in the Easter victory: “God is with us.” But the road from Christmas to Easter goes through Calvary. It is for that reason that mysterious funeral gifts are brought to the newly born Infant.

The Lord leads every man, and the whole Church, by the same narrow path which He trod Himself, in the days of His flesh. To us this path seems to be not only narrow, but embarrassing. We are embarrassed and scandalized by the power of evil and by the apparent impotence of the truth. For, in this world of ours, the righteousness is still persecuted, and the just suffer, and injustice seems to be a jubilant winner. There is, in this world, no peace, no calm, no joy. The frail man cannot believe the news proclaimed by the angels: “And on earth peace.” He does not find peace “on earth” in his world. One is inclined rather to believe in the cruel law of “the struggle for existence.” Is it not in fact the law of that life into which our own existence is hopelessly entangled, regardless of our earnest desire to follow another law—the law of self-renunciation and charity? We do not find much peace around us, but rather a “war of all against all.” Is not this “peace on earth” just a deceiving dream, a thrilling but futile aspiration? How can we join the Angelic chorus and sing with them the Glory of God, amidst the horrors and darkness of this life? We may suppress in ourselves a temptation of despair, and still we are ready rather to cry from pain than to sing praises. Christmas doxology of angels seems to us utterly unreal and remote from the earth. It sounds on high without reaching earth, without catching human hearts, overburdened and stiffened by sorrow.


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This inability to taste and receive the joy of Christ, this slowness and foolishness of our hearts, comes from our little faith and self-will. The Lord leads us along a path other than that we would have chosen ourselves. We are tempted to chide the Lord with Peter—saying: “Far it be from Thee, O Lord,”—because we do not mind the things of God, but those of men. Peter was scandalized by the prospective Cross of Jesus. We are repelled by the Cross of the world, by our own Crosses, And yet, there is but one road into the kingdom of the Divine peace, “that passes all understanding;” a “narrow path,” a sorrowful path, the path of the Cross, but it only is a safe and secure path, as it is the path of Christ Himself. There is but one joy that never can be taken away, the joy of the suffering and crucified love. There is but one light yoke, the yoke of Christ, the yoke of love and faithfulness. The yoke of earthly sorrow and despair is unbearable indeed. The yoke of humility and patience is easier than a burden of self-righteousness and indignation. The latter should be born by man alone, but Christ Himself helps us to carry His yoke. It seems easy to complain and protest against the ills of life, but this does not bring any joy or consolation—indignation embitters and poisons our hearts. It is not easy to enter into the joy of that redeeming love, with which the Savior of the world had embraced, in His ineffable condescension, this world “that lies in the evil” and cherishes its own darkness much more than the light of God, because its deeds are evil. It is hard indeed, for a fleshly man, to enter into the spirit of this Love Divine, which extends its rays to sinners, and publicans, and adulterers, and is ready to suffer death for their sake, while they are enemies of God. We have another sense of justice. Our justice is vindictive. But only in this paradoxical love of God is dis-closed His true justice, the fullness of justice and mercy. One can learn all this only by experience, no argument can convince here. One should take the Cross, in obedience and gratitude to His love, and follow Christ. And then the impossible becomes possible, the incredible turns to be self-evident, and through the fog and mist of the earthly injustice one discerns the radiance of the Divine Glory, which pierces through every darkness. Then one learns that the Cross is the fulness of Glory, and that it was not in vain that on Christmas night the angels did proclaim so triumphantly God’s glory. For the joy they had to announce was immense and without measure: The Savior of the creation was born that night. God’s glory is in His love. And peace is in love also. No earthly pain or sorrow can steal or destroy that peace which we, by faith, receive from the Incarnate Lord.

“For I am persuaded,” St. Paul exclaims, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus Our Lord.”

He conquered the world, not by His might, but by His love, by the might of His sacrificial love, which opens even the slow and foolish hearts.

The true love is never upset by any sorrow, and it is never caught by unjustice, but radiates into the world, and quickens it. The martyrs, who died for Christ, were witnesses of peace, and witnesses of His love, and it was by that love that they conquered the world. And they were building up the true peace of the world, “that peace that passes every knowledge,” that peace which the world can never give, that peace which Christ alone freely gives and grants to those who follow Him, in faith and obedience. There is peace on earth “among men of good will,” as the Angels have sung.

*Originally published as an editorial in St Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter 1954), pp. 3-6.


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