A Pastoral Letter for the Feast of the Blessed Nativity
of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, 2021
and for the Feast of the Glorious Theophany, 2022
My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“The Mystery of Christ runs the risk of being disbelieved precisely because it is so incredibly wonderful.” (St Cyril of Alexandria, 5th Century)
In the year 55, St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, was in Ephesus of Asia Minor which is now Turkey, and it was from there that he addressed a series of letters to the Church at Corinth in Central Greece. Two of these letters survive and are included in the canon of the New Testament writings. In the first letter, Paul reminds the Corinthian faithful that “there are three things that last – faith, hope and love; and of these, the greatest is love.” (1Cor 13:13). And, love is everlasting because it is of the very nature of God himself. As St John the Evangelist writes in his first letter to the Church, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
Our life in Christ is experienced as an interaction of faith and love in the present, the here and now. The two indeed form an interwoven response to the demands of the Gospel. When he comes again in his glory with all the angels, the Shepherd-King will ask not what we have believed, but rather what we have done because of our faith. (Mt 25:31-46)
In the Letter to the Hebrews there is a long consideration of exemplary Old Covenant individuals who “by faith” overcame formidable obstacles to accomplish great things. (See chapter 11) And we should note that in all the achievements considered, “faith” is not simply an intellectual assent to a statement of beliefs, but rather total confidence in the unfailing Providence of God; a trusting certainty that empowered and motivated individuals throughout covenantal history.
During these last two years, great demands due to the Corona pandemics have been made on our faith as “the guarantee of things we hope for, and the certainty of things we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) As we continue our journey through uncertain times, there is one thing that is surely certain, the journey must be one undertaken with faith.
The celebration of Christmas, the Feast of the Divine Nativity, provides us with several examples of confidence and trust, at times not even fully formed in the minds of those involved but clearly apparent in their actions:
Our first exemplar in faith must surely be our Blessed Lady, the Most Holy Theotokos. Some have suggested that the question put to the Angel by our Lady, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”(“…since I know not man” - Πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο, ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω) (Lk 1:34) indicates an uncertainty or doubt, a lack of trust in the Messenger and his message. However, her subsequent response to the angel must surely show that whatever the significance of our Lady’s quite practical concern, she understood and assented to the vocation now placed before her - “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38)Indeed, if her words had arisen from misgivings and disbelief, we are left to wonder why the Angel displayed not even a mild displeasure, considering his very direct reaction to the doubt of Zacharia, the father of St John the Forerunner. (Lk 1:18-20) Rather, her complete and unwavering confidence, her trust in God, caused our Lady “to go as quickly as she could to a town in the hills of Judah”. (Lk 1:39) The journey to be with her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is indeed undertaken by faith.
St Joseph was indeed troubled by the events that unfolded around him; and these were uncertainties that required a personal and direct message. (Mt 1:20-23) However, the events that follow, especially his care of the Theotokos and the Infant Jesus (Mt 2:13-15) show clearly that Joseph the Righteous fulfilled his vocation by faith.
Two especially significant New Testament “faith events” involve very dissimilar groups. In the Gospel of St Luke, the birth of Jesus is announced to shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” (Lk 2:8) Some commentators have made much of the low social standing of shepherds in first century Israel; however, be that as it may, we note the reaction of these men, their response is certainly one of faith. No sooner had the angelic choirs departed than the shepherds leave their flocks and go to Bethlehem “to see what the Lord has made known to them.” (see Lk 2:8-20) Their response is a faith-filled acceptance of something beyond the ordinary, beyond the worldly.
The same is to be found in the narrative of the Magi, the Wise Men, who journey to Bethlehem guided by a star. These Persian seers, Zoroastrian fire-worshippers, are undoubtedly amongst the most enigmatic characters in Sacred Scripture. It has been estimated that they were on the road at least three to four months, if not longer, seeking the Truth that they had somehow glimpsed; and whatever that understanding may have been, they journeyed by faith. (Mt 2:1-12) In both examples, the shepherds and the Magi, their response, their “doing”, arose from their faith.
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
As we approach the Stable-Cave at Bethlehem, let us draw near in faith. We live in a society increasingly removed from the Mystery commemorated at Christmas – that God-the-Son, the Eternal Word, Wisdom and Power of God, “…emptied himself, taking on the nature of a servant, made in human likeness, and in appearance found as a man.” (Phil 2:7-8)
For us, the Household of the Faith, the Divine Nativity, celebrated according to our several calendars, is an event which transcends the limitations of history, the constraints of space and time. On Christmas Day we will welcome the New-born Saviour into our midst as much as did the Shepherds, we will worship him just as did the Magi. Our greeting for that day is not “Christ was born”, as if the event just happened in the past, but rather “Christ is born” because his birth touches us in the present, the here and now in our daily life. And all Creation cries out, “Glorify him.”
As we consider the year that has passed, and as we ponder that which is to come, let us place all in the hands of the Good Lord, making our prayer that of St Ephraim the Syrian, in the fourth century: “Now therefore, we pray you, O Lord, let us behold the depths of your mercy. Eternal Saviour, rescue us from the devilish foe, make us zealous in holy living, keep us from straying into peril of death, and lead us, by the straight path of your service, which is peace, O Saviour of the world, you who are God, living and reigning, and ruling with God the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.”
It is my fervent prayer that this Nativity Feast will be for each family and household, a time of every Heavenly Blessing and Good Gift from Above.
Christ is born! Glorify Him! Χριστός γεννάται! Δοξάσατε! المسـيحُ وُلِد، فَمَـجِّدُوه
Robert Rabbat, DD
From our Eparchy at Greenacre, New South Wales
24 December 2021