CHRISTMAS PASTORAL LETTER 2002
UKRAINIAN AUTOCEPHALOUS ORTHODOX CHURCH - SOBORNOPRAVNA
TO THE VERY REVERED AND REVEREND FATHERS, CLERGY, RELIGIOUS AND FAITHFUL OF THE UKRAINIAN AUTOCEPHALOUS ORTHODOX CHURCH - SOBORNOPRAVNA: PEACE, HEALTH AND SALVATION IN THE NEW-BORN CHRIST, WITH OUR ARCHPASTORAL BLESSING!
CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!
KHRYSTOS RODIVSYA! SLAVITE YOHO!
Once again, the world pauses to remember that event of two millennia ago, when the Son of God came into our world as a new-born infant, in order to experience life as a human being and to show us the way to our heavenly Father. Much reflection has taken place over the past two thousand years, on this single event which we celebrate at this time of the year. No matter how the birth of Christ is considered, the most powerful and humbling thought concerns the fact that Jesus, the Eternal God and Word of the Father entered into a life with much of the same experiences that we still encounter today.
The scriptural accounts of Jesus' birth are called the "infancy narratives" and refer to those sections of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, which describe the circumstances under which Jesus was born. The particular story line is both historic and symbolic, and introduces us to the situation that will set the stage for the rest of the Gospel. Dreams and appearances play a significant role in the story of Jesus' birth and it was in such a manner that the very name the Divine Child would be given is revealed. According to the angel who appeared to Joseph in one of several dreams, the new-born was to be called "Jesus" which means "The Lord is salvation," because "he will save his people from their sins" (Mt. 1:21). Right from the start, the stage is set for Jesus' life, which will ultimately end in the sacrifice of his own self, "for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt. 26:28). This "new covenant" in Jesus' blood will be given so that we can overcome our fallen nature and rise above it, to a life renewed by self-giving, service to others and the triumph of the unexpected, when God works in significant ways to point out what is otherwise confused or hidden from the majority of the population.
Jesus was born into a time when life, especially in the part of the world in which he lived, was filled with many of the same trials, difficulties and conflicts that still go on today. His birth in Palestine in the first century of the Christian era was surrounded by circumstances that were not easy, not ideal, not totally peaceful and serene. From the beginning, Jesus and his family had to face opposition from those who did not understand what God was doing in the world, who did not wish to see those sentiments which the angels announced to the humble shepherd people, that this sacred birth was meant to be one which proclaimed "peace on earth and good will to all people" (Lk. 2:14).
"It was the Magi - learned men of other countries, who carefully followed the signs of nature, a mysterious star, and with God's guidance, were the first to acknowledge the importance of the birth of the Messiah-King. So they were compelled . . . to travel long distances to give Jesus' birth the proper reverence it deserved (Mt. 2:10-11)."
At that time, the leaders of the political scene of the Holy Land were much like those in the world today, who oppose efforts for peace, attempts to make gestures of "good will" towards others and to build a world in which people can live together in harmony. As is often the case, the birth of Jesus and its meaning were recognized only by those outside of the community into which he came. It was the Magi - learned men of other countries, who carefully followed the signs of nature, a mysterious star, and with God's guidance, were the first to acknowledge the importance of the birth of the Messiah-King. So they were compelled in their faithfulness to the pursuit of truth, to travel long distances to give Jesus' birth the proper reverence it deserved (Mt. 2:10-11).
On the other hand, we have in the Christmas narratives, those like Herod, then the ruler of the area of Palestine, who rather than understanding and accepting the birth of Jesus when it was pointed out to him by the Magi, "was disturbed" (Mt. 2:3) and sought to circumvent any significance it might have, by slaughtering all the newly-born male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem. It was fear and pride that kept Herod from worshipping the new-born King himself - fear that such a radical change in the political makeup of the area would bring about trouble and pride that one other than himself had been sent by God to bring a time of "peace and good will" to the people of his domain. From the beginning, the political leaders in Jerusalem begin to plot against Jesus' life and so we have in the birth-narratives, already a prelude to the climax of the Gospels, which will occur some thirty three years later, also in Jerusalem, in the Passion of Our Lord.
Because of the failings of those like Herod, Jesus and his family were forced from the very start, to be in exile for a time (Mt. 2: 13-23). The Lord instructed St. Joseph, who ever cooperated with the divine plan of God, to take the Holy Family out of the land of Israel and flee into Egypt, to protect them from the wrath of Herod and those others who sought to put a quick end to the child's life. For the second time, Mary and Joseph traveled far from their home, in order that God's will be accomplished in all things. Not only did Jesus' birth take place in Bethlehem, far from his parents' natural home in Nazareth, but now, they became "strangers in a strange land," so that in all ways, Jesus could relate his life to those of the people he came to save. In every way, he became poor and destitute, so that we would later come to know a God who was not above our own human condition, who could and would, be able to share the sufferings of life with those whom he loves.
". . . we have in the Christmas narratives, those like Herod, who rather than understanding and accepting the birth of Jesus . . . "was disturbed" (Mt. 2:3) and sought to circumvent any significance it might have."
As we meditate on the Christmas story this year, let us each remember that while it is truly a blessed and joyous event, one which would produce the fruits of our salvation - God's presence among us, it was also a realistic one, filled with the difficulties conditioned by the times in which it took place. The holy characters in the Nativity narratives were not somehow "above" what was taking place around them, but in a real way, were participants in the situations in which they lived.
Brothers and Sisters, although the holiday season is an exciting one, filled with precious memories and traditions for families and loved ones, we realize that for many, this time of year can be melodramatic. Some of us are alone, with no one to share the happiness that Christmas is meant to bring. Others are experiencing hardships, financial, health-related or personal, which make it difficult to fully enjoy the season. There are people in our communities who just cannot bring themselves to "get into the Christmas spirit" which commercialism constantly places before us, as the proper way to celebrate the holidays.
It is important for us to remember that while Christmas brings with it messages of peace and joy, it is also a time to realize that our God is one who knows and understands life's complexities. If we do nothing else for Christmas, let us read the scriptures' account of the Nativity fully, from the first several chapters of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, which we have examined in this letter. We must begin at the beginning, not simply skip to the sections that tell of the actual birth-event. These will give us a better glimpse at the birth of Jesus and will also allow us to put his entry into the world into perspective with events of the time and with Old Testament accounts which foretold all that was to come in regards to Our Lord.
". . . although the holiday season is an exciting one . . . we realize that for many, this time of year can be melodramatic . . . hardships make it difficult to fully enjoy the season. There are people in our communities who just cannot bring themselves to "get into the Christmas spirit" which commercialism constantly places before us, as the proper way to celebrate the holidays."
As we contemplate Jesus' birth in a complete way, that includes the difficulties into which he was born, let us be comforted by the fact that, even though he was the Son of God, Christ did not remove himself from the sufferings of his people, but rather, embraced them fully, sharing in the same obstacles that others face daily. The Christmas story is but a prelude to the rest of the life of Jesus, through which he was to announce to us that God's kingdom had indeed arrived and that injustices would eventually be overcome, through a better understanding of what it means to be a son or daughter of God, in reaching out and embracing others, in becoming ourselves, vessels of peace and good will.
We must take the initiative, like the wise Magi in the story, to recognize and act upon God's activity in our world. We can and will make a difference, in both our own lives and those of others, if we do not allow pride and fear to stop us from speaking out for justice and truth. This is the meaning of Christmas and it cannot be kept hidden. As Christians, it is our duty to restore the meaning of the holiday season and to be as those who first announced the great wonders of God's birth into this world.
"We must take the initiative, like the wise Magi in the story, to recognize and act upon God's activity in our world. We can and will make a difference . . . if we do not allow pride and fear to stop us from speaking out for justice and truth."
Dear people, we wish you and your loved ones, the very best that the Christmas Season can offer. From our hearts, we thank you for your devoted service to your parishes over the past year. Be assured that each of you will share in our prayers and remembrances at the Divine Liturgy during Christmas and throughout the coming year. Your love and faithfulness mean a lot to us. Remember that as a church, we are also a family, and that you can approach us at any time, should you feel the need to reach out to us. As your bishops, we share in the role of Christ who is truly the Good Shepherd, the one who loves and cares for his flock. Please pray for us also, that we may strongly fulfill the awesome role that God has entrusted to us, to the best of our ability, now and throughout the years ahead.
With our love and sincerest blessings at this holy time, we remain,
Sincerely Yours in the New-Born Christ,
THE COUNCIL OF HIERARCHS
UKRAINIAN AUTOCEPHALOUS ORTHODOX CHURCH
"There is joyous news today . . .
like there has never been before . . .
O'rr the manger . . .
A bright star illumines the world . . . "
(Traditional Ukrainian Carol - "Nova Radist Stala")
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