2008 CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY PASTORAL LETTER
HIS EMINENCE, METROPOLITAN MYKHAYIL
ARCHBISHOP-METROPOLITAN OF NEW YORK
Dec. 25, 2008 - January 7, 2009
To our venerable hierarchy, clergy, religious and beloved faithful of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America and the Diaspora: Peace, health, tranqulity and salvation at this holiday season, with my archpastoral blessing!
ХРИСТОС НАРОДИВСЯ! СЛАВІТЕ ЙОГО!
CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!
CRISTO HA NACIDO! GLORIÍQUENLO!
ولد المسيح! تمجيد الله!
Our observance of the "holiday season" is always three-fold. From a secular perspective, there is the celebration of the changing of the year, reflecting on the events of the year which is passing, while expressing our hopes and expectations for the one which is about to begin. In the Christian culture, we make much to do in remembering the coming together of divinity and humanity, in the birth of Jesus Christ. Further, as Orthodox Christians, we put great emphasis on the celebration of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River, with its rich symbolism and elaborate cultural traditions.
A very popular Ukrainian Christmas carol speaks of three "feast days" or "holidays" during which the people rejoice and celebrate (Dobriy Vechir Tobi). The order of their mention, represents the proper sequence of the calendar, when both the civil and ecclesiastical once reflected the same calibration. For those who observe the so-called "revised calendar," these feasts still occur in the manner mentioned in the song.
The "first feast day" therefore, is the Birth of Christ. Much information for reflection on this historical event is available from many sources. We are already familiar with a lot of them. Therefore, since the nature of this annual letter is meant to be "pastoral" rather than a theological treatise better deliberated in the classroom, I will refrain from such platitudes. The simple fact, as the song reminds us, is that people around the world should "rejoice, for the Son of God has been born." As I have spoken about in other years, the coming of Jesus to the earth not only had theological meaning, but was a sign that many social and political insitutions and attitudes were in need of reform and were indeed, about to break down.
The "second feast day" in the song, is identified as that of "St. Basil" which, if we are familiar with the Byzantine calendar, is celebrated on January 1, or New Years Day. Also remembered on that day is the Circumcision of the Christ Child, since on the eighth day after his birth, this would have been customary. For we Christians, this time certainly should be well used to welcome the coming of another year, thanking God for new visions and opportunities. This cannot be done however, without reflecting on the year past, celebrating progress and blessings, while being aware of the shortsightedness, small minded attitudes and hardness of heart which kept us last year, from fulfilling the potential that the Lord would have us achieve.
On the "third feast day" we remember and re-enact that mysterious baptism of Christ and his descent into the waters of the Jordan. In Ukrainian, as the song calls it, it is often referred to as "Svyata voda khreshcha" or the "Baptism of the waters." Usually it is known as the Epiphany or Theophany. Another and more ancient name for this holyday is the "enlightenment" or "illumination." Although this name is derived from the fact that the holiday was once a time for the celebration of the sacrament of baptism, it continues to have meaning today, in that the feast remembers that the words of Christ are an "enlightenment" of humanity - words which we are supposed to take seriously and avail ourselves of.
Perhaps the most significant idea to remember in our observance of the winter holiday season is that for the Christians of the earliest period, these feasts were not celebrated as separate entities, each with its own day. The oldest Christian form of the winter celebration was to remember several events together on one day - January 6, under the name of "Theophania," meaning God's revelation or manifestation. On this day were remembered the birth of Christ, the revelation to the Magi, the baptism in the Jordan and the wedding at Cana and Jesus' first miracle. All of these scriptural events point to the "manifestation" of Christ in different ways to different people, and the term manifestation continues to be used in the liturgy today.
Brothers and Sisters, to celebrate God's manifestation to the world is an awesome thing and gives us much to reflect on. God is manifested through Jesus Christ, not only through events which are past, but through experiences going on in life today. Again and again, the Lord is giving us revelation, insight, knowledge and new direction. These are gifts and signs of the Holy Spirit of God, present in the life of those who believe. We must pay attention to the signs of revelation in our own time and our own space. While we understand that the appearance of Christ 2000 years ago was a fulfillment of God's plan of salvation for the world, nowhere does it say that the activity of God in the world stopped with Jesus' ascension into heaven. On the contrary, he promised to remain with us until the end of time (Matthew 28:20) and so it is.
At this season of hope and renewal, I greet, as every year, the Predstoyatel of our church, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Mefodiy and our clergy and faithful in every eparchy of Ukraine. It is my prayerful wish that God's creative energy be poured out afresh upon the people in our spiritual and ancestral Motherland. I also extend my deep love and heartfelt blessing to our hierarchy, priests, religious and faithful in every part of our Metropolia, in Latin America, Western Europe, the United States, Africa and Canada. The intention of my heart is that our church, although poor in the resources of this world, will be a rich channel for God's self-manifestation, in each part of the world where we serve.
As another song reminds us: "From a distance, God is watching us" (recorded 1990, Bette Midler; written 1985, Julie Gold). He sees all that we do, what we say, how we react and whether or not we respond with integrity. Let us do our best, so that beneath God's ever watchful eye, his manifestation, his incarnation into this world, is reflected in each and every one of us.
With the promise of a remembrance in the Sacred and Divine Liturgy for all of you, I ask you to remember me, a humble messenger in God's all embracing plan of love.
Archbishop-Metropolitan of New York
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church