2004 CHRISTMAS PASTORAL LETTER
TO THE DEVOTED CLERGY, RELIGIOUS AND FAITHFUL OF THE UKRAINIAN AUTOCEPHALOUS ORTHODOX CHURCH OF NORTH & SOUTH AMERICA, PEACE, HEALTH AND SALVATION IN THE NEW-BORN CHRIST, WITH OUR ARCHPASTORAL BLESSING!
CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!
KHRYSTOS RODIVSYA! SLAVITE JOHO!
- Let the stars in the sky remind us of man's compassion. Let us love till we die and God bless us, everyone!
- In your heart there's a light as bright as a star in heaven. Let it shine through the night and God bless us, everyone.
- Till each child is fed; till all men are free; till the world becomes a family.
Star by star in the sky and kindness by human kindness, let me love till I die and God bless us everyone!
- ("A Christmas Carol - The Musical" Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens - 1995 Broadway Production") -
On the Sunday after Thanksgiving Day, many of us had the opportunity to view for the first time, the motion picture version of Alan Menkin's (The Little Mermaid; Alladin, others) rendition of the timeless work of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" which was featured on NBC network television. Some of us may even have had the chance to see this particular version of the classic Christmas story when it played on Broadway, where it opened in 1995 or at Madison Square Garden, where it played for nearly a decade, before its final season last year.
While there are countless versions of Dickens' work, theatrical and on the silver screen, spoken and musical, such as the still popular 1970 musical motion picture Scrooge, featuring Albert Finney, traditional renderings as well as numerous contemporary types seen today, the score from this production has always left a spiritual impression on me and helped to better understand the real meaning of Christmas and of the Incarnation of the Son of God.
We know from scripture and dogma, that the birth of Christ, the coming of God's Word into our human flesh, was an expression of God's mercy and compassion for the human race. Theology calls it a "kenosis" or an "emptying of self," that God deigned to accept our human situation in every way, in order to show to us, the way to become one with God (theosis - divinization). The fragile and broken state of life in this world could only have hope of improvement and salvation if the Almighty himself actually came among us to show and teach us the way.
Much of Our Lord's teaching in the Gospels has to do with love and compassion for others, for going beyond ourselves, emptying ourselves of pride and self-concern, in order to make God present to others - to bring the Kingdom of God into concrete reality in peoples' everyday lives and to make them better. At Jesus' birth, the dawn of God's compassion for humankind, it was a star that played a pivotal role in announcing the good news of the joyous occasion. The Christmas star led a group of diverse, well-thinking people - those we call the "wise men" or "magi" in the birth-narratives. Because of their devotion to faith and to reason, God gave them the insight to follow this star, because it was a sign of something of ultimate importance happening - God's compassion raining down upon the world. They were open to it, even if it may not have fit their former models of belief systems. "Let the stars in the sky remind us of man's compassion." The compassion this means of course, is that which is God-given and inspired and lived by we human beings.
Jesus tells us during his ministry, to "come, follow me," and to "do for others, what I have done to you." If we believe in God and in the one whom he sent, Jesus, his only Son, we are to be like him in every way. Jesus' focus in the New Testament is about compassion, forgiveness and kindness towards others, as God is compassionate, forgiving and kind to us. This kindness of heart, this miloserdya or misericordie would be ultimately revealed at the end of the Gospel story, when the Word, the Son of God, Jesus, gives up even his own life, for the benefit and salvation of all. "Let us love till we die and God bless us everyone."
If we are to benefit at all from the annual Christmas observances and festivities, from the liturgical services and from the memorial of the birth of Jesus Christ, we must be willing to receive him into our hearts, our minds and our souls, and follow seriously, the example that this feast celebrates and the path upon which the Christmas story leads. At the holidays, despite commercialism and political sensitivities that have taken a spiritual toll on the celebration, many people are "filled with holiday spirit." Many are a little kinder, a bit more pleasant, forgiving perhaps, of wrongs and misunderstandings. There are those who even go out of their way further, to help others, the poor, marginalized and less fortunate. This is laudable, but is also a pattern of behavior that the serious Christian must strive for not only at Christmas, but each and every day. "In your heart there's a light as bright as a star in heaven. Let it shine through the night and God bless us, everyone." In the prologue to the Gospel of John, we read, "The true light that enlightenes everyone, was coming into the world," (Jn. 1:9).
The Gospel of the "Last Judgment" which we read on Meatfare Sunday, two weeks before Lent, gives us the ultimate criterion for the Christian life. God will judge us on how much compassion and kindness we have shown to others in our lives. "When I was hungry, you fed me, thirsty, you have me to drink, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me . . . " (Mt. 25: 31-45). Compassion, according to the dictionary, means (1) "a deep awareness of and sympathy for another's suffering;" and (2) "the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it." We cannot call ourselves followers of Christ - Christians, Orthodox or otherwise, if we do not make compassion, that deep "kindness of heart - miloserdya" a real part of our lives. It requires real action, physical, personal and emotional. "Till each child is fed; till all men are free; till the world becomes a family."
While we have many advantages at our disposal, both material and cerebral, that were not available in centuries past, the world today is often a difficult and confused place for many. It goes beyond those who are in chronic, stereotypical impoverished and underprivileged situations, who always, according to the Gospel and the teaching of the church we must have a "preferential option for," to those of us in our communities, our parishes, our workplaces and our own families, who for one reason or another are suffering. Some of us suffer from physical hunger or lack of medical attention. Other of us experience deep suffering of a spiritual or emotional nature, that is equally or even perhaps harder to alleviate.
Regardless of our condition, we all have some "human frailty" inside of us, to whatever extent it may be, that reflect not the loving, compassionate way that God desires for his people, but rather, the result of sin and the real struggle between good and evil in our world. What God desires for us, the evil one (the devil) wishes the opposite. It is a serious matter, as Jesus tells us, to "keep vigilant" because "the evil one will come like a thief in the night . . . " . Christmas tells us that God's ultimate compassion and kindness of heart will triumph and life can be experienced as part of God's happy reign, but only if we follow the example set by his Son, Jesus. Both the Nativity of Our Lord and his Passion tell us that it is God's compassion as imitated by people, one to another, that the real "so what" of our lives can be discovered. If God's heart was so moved to love us enough to send his Son into this world, then our hearts too, must make God's presence known to others, through our own self-emptying - kenosis, our own compassion, our own tenderness of heart and understanding.
In keeping with the Gospel message and the Old Testament prophetic tradition, particularly that of Isaiah, which is read often in the liturgical services of Christmas, compassion and self-emptying sometimes require that we change our way of thinking or opinion on some matter, particularly those that directly effect other human beings and the welfare that God desires for them. Compassion means a lack of judgment, going the long run in the art of selflessness, as shown by God through the gift of his Son. They also imply a concrete doing of something to change others' lives for the better, whether it be by our thoughts, words or deeds. Compassionate love, God's love implies freedom and liberty for human beings, to live out their lives according to their good conscience. It presumes that justice be established for peoples where it is lacking, whether it be in social policy or from tyrannical, imperial and oppressive regimes, because "God will come to rule the world with justice." It demands the right of each one to self-determination and expression, in imitation of God's compassionate love, because God took on our human nature in its entirety, and our human life with all that goes with it (cf. St. John Damascene).
The character in Dickens' tale, Ebenezer Scrooge was saved from a life that lacked compassion. He had no concern for anyone but himself. Events in his life had helped to made his heart so hardened that he spent years in self-isolation, coldness and cruelty towards his fellow human being. He was in misery and called a "miser." However, he was given a "second chance" to see life for what it really should be and the opportunity to choose the path of compassion and kindness. Fortunately, it would save him from a future of further misery, misfortune and ultimately, eternal death. Scrooge saw the road signs pointed out by the Christmas spirits and had a change of heart, a metanoia, a turn around. Christmas gives each of us the same opportunity to consider our lives and discover just how much we are living up to the expectations of God's compassion for us. We like Ebenezer, want God to have mercy and kindness towards us when our time comes to leave this earthly life. If we are serious, then we have to put into action, the example of compassion given in the Cave of Bethlehem where Jesus was born, not just at Christmas, but all year long.
And so we continue to believe and we continue to pray. There will certainly be or are, times in each of our lives that require compassion, times when we want God and other people to be kind to us and take compassion on us. It is important to remember that our lives are gifts from God and that he wants us to live them happily, but that there is also the force of evil around us, trying always to bring us out of God love and compassion. Staying ever close to God and giving our lives to him, as he gave his life to us at Christmas, will help to make sure that we travel the path of life correctly and survive well through both obstacles and times of ease. And as we look to the end of our life's path, which is hopefully, union and happiness with God in his own kingdom - his own dwelling place, and communion with the saints, including our departed loved ones and friends, we already know, from Jesus' words in the Gospel of St. Matthew quoted above, that it is our compassion on which we will be finally judged.
It is our sincere prayer and hope that this Christmas may be a special experience of the compassion of God and the kindness of and towards others, for each of us. May Our Lord Jesus Christ, through the celebration of his Blessed Nativity, help us to spread the love and compassion of God's reign, into the particular part and type of the world in which we each live. "Star by star in the sky and kindness by human kindness, let me love till I die and God bless us everyone!"
May the Peace and Blessing of Almighty God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, descend upon you all, your families, loved ones, friends, parishes and all in your lives, and may it remain with you and within your hearts, forever.
Sincerely in the New-Born Christ,
The Most Rev. Michael Javchak Champion, DD., MA Th.
Archbishop-Metropolitan of the United States & the Americas
Apostolic Administrator of Western Europe
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church of North & South America
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