Christmas is a time for giving and receiving gifts and enjoying the feasts and parties surrounding a very special day. It is a sacred day of remembrance: what God has done for us in the Incarnation; but also a sacred moment of potential: what God can incarnate in us as a result.
As faithful people, much of our time is dedicated to doing the things we think we ought to do for God: being helpful, loving, caring, considerate, forgiving, happy, etc. As people of faith, we accredit this life to God and try to be in response to God’s call to us. Even so, there is a barrier between us and God which, despite our best efforts, makes it almost impossible to truly act or “be” for God. As Thomas Merton, a renowned 20th century American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion wrote, “The ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its own reactions, and talks about itself is not the true ‘I’ that has been united to God in Christ” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pg.7).
We are complicated creatures, and we will always live lives of self-observance mixed with self-realization. As people of faith, our goal is to grow through self-observance and relinquishment to godly realization. Our self-observant self (helping us to decide what to do and how to be) relinquishes our self to God, admitting we are unable to self-realize ourselves. Giving up our self-observant “what should I do/be self” to God, our deeper identity that lives in the heart of God, our true self, the one we are trying to self-realize, is actualized.
Our true self can only be found in this inner place of heart and soul where we relinquish ourselves to God. It is the self that contains the full potential of God’s image, the imago Dei, and is waiting to be birthed in us as the Image of Christ. Among all the treasures of our life, this is the pearl of great price we must acquire (Matt. 13:46). Through the love and peace of Christ, the true self is birthed into the world when our self-observant selves are integrated into the imago Dei, in the core of our being.
With the birth of our true self, our self in the image of Christ, Christ is born again in us as we lose our old life and find a new life in Christ’s self. While we all bear God’s image, the Christian journey includes an invitation to grow into God’s likeness, becoming like God in order to love as God loves–unconditionally without hesitation (2 Corinthians 3:18). In this new life, we become free to love God, others, and self as Christ loves. With a clear understanding of our own failures and limitations, and with an equal awareness of the power of God to complete our deficiencies, we exhibit the virtue of humility. When Christ calls us to follow, he invites us to journey inward to the true self.
The Desert Fathers called this process theosis (divinization), the transfiguration of the individual into the likeness of Christ. Almost all the Early Church Fathers wrote and preached about theosis (divinization), Saint Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 to 215 A.D.) wrote:
For if one knows himself, he will know God; and knowing God, he will be made like God, theosis... Now, God alone is in need of nothing, and rejoices most when He sees us bright with the ornament of intelligence; ... [that man] has the form which is of the Word; he is made like to God; he is beautiful; he does not ornament himself: his is beauty, the true beauty, for it is God; and that man becomes God, since God so wills.(Exhortation to the Heathens, 11)
And again, St Basil the Great of Caesarea (330 to 379 A.D.) wrote:
He makes them spiritual by fellowship with Himself. Just as when a sunbeam falls on bright and transparent bodies, they themselves become brilliant too, and shed forth a fresh brightness from themselves, so souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God." (On the Spirit, 23)
Saint Marcus Eremita the Ascetic (ca. 451 A.D.) reflected:
All the penalties imposed by divine judgment upon man for the sin of the first transgression - death, toil, hunger, thirst and the like - He took upon Himself, becoming what we are, so that we might become what He is. The Logos became man, so that man might become Logos. Being rich, He became poor for our sakes, so that through His poverty we might become rich. In His great love for man He became like us, so that through every virtue we might become like Him. From the time that Christ came to dwell with us, man created according to God's image and likeness is truly renewed through the grace and power of the Spirit, attaining to the perfect love which 'casts out fear' - the love which is no longer able to fail, for 'love never fails'. (To Nicolas the Solitary)
The ardency with which the Fathers address this topic and the fact that virtually all of them spoke with one voice shows us how important and vital this teaching was and is. Indeed, Jesus’ promise to draw closer to us through the Holy Spirit and our participation and devotion to Him are, perhaps, the most important aspects of our faith.
Using language such as “birthing” is appropriate and resonates with the imagery of effort and sacrifice, wonder and blessing. The stories of the Desert Fathers reveal their devotion to Christ and their serious attention to the inner spiritual life. Today we would refer to their difficult psychological reflections in which they worked to reconcile competing values and motivations in the dismantling of their false self. These desert ascetics worked at incarnating the peace of Christ in order to change the world, but they succeeded in knowing the love of Christ so they could become the love of God for others.
In the desert solitude, those fourth century Christians encountered the things that divide the heart and diminish the ability to love. Each encounter with a habit, belief, emotion, or false identity that stood in opposition to love was an opportunity to invite God to reign over those broken places within the human heart. The ensuing struggle for dominance, between their desire to be like Christ and their behavior or state of being, was a spiritual birthing process. The pain inherent in the labor and struggle was as real and palpable as a woman’s relentless contractions in the birth of a baby. In the end, they gave birth to their true self, embodying Christ’s love in their heart through their disciplined spiritual practices and the overwhelming grace of God.
Though the way was paved by the Desert Fathers, the journey is ours. It is our privilege and blessing to undertake the arduous and difficult spiritual trek, indeed, it is our Baptismal promise to do so. In our Baptismal rite, we proclaim that God initiates the process of birthing the true self through water and spirit. The newly Baptized must labor and cooperate with God in his or her own transformation, as well as work with God toward the transformation of the world. The Baptized is asked to “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God,” to “renounce the evil powers of the world,” the “sinful desires that draw us from the love of God,” and to “turn to Jesus” (BCP pg. 302) These vows are not only meant to direct our attention to the brokenness of the world around us, but also to the brokenness and sin found within us.
The Reverend Father George Anthony Maloney+, Jesuit Monk and Eastern Orthodox Priest, Theologian and author of over 80 books, wrote that seeking God is to, “to transcend the limitations of human words and mental images to reach an inner ‘still point’ where God and . . . [the praying person] meet in silent self-surrender” (Prayer of the Heart: The Contemplative Tradition of the Christian East, pg. 65.)
That “inner still point” is the place of birth. Birth of a new life in Christ, birth of Christ in us to the world, birth of ourselves to the glory prepared for us.
"Divine grace confers on us two gifts ... The first gift is given to us at once, ... the image of God ... The second - our likeness to God - requires our co-operation. When the intellect begins to perceive the Holy Spirit with full consciousness, we should realize that grace is beginning to paint the divine likeness over the divine image in us. ... St. Diadochos of Photiki (ca. 400) "On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination” 89.
Every year we receive gifts from family and friends: a few we asked for, most we don’t need, and some we never saw coming. With no exception, all the gifts fall into three overlapping categories: 1. Useful, 2. Consumable, and 3. Disposable. As we grow older it seems, most of the gifts reside in the first two categories, though all will eventually find their way to the third. There is one gift, however, that we receive again each year—in fact again each moment, which defies the categories and supersedes the limitations of time.
Salvation is the gift we “never saw coming.” Salvation in the form of the “babe lying in a manger” is an anomaly, an extrasensory manifestation of God, the Imago Dei (image of God), the Incarnate Word! Salvation is made human, and love is offered freely as a recognizable form and in an accessible relationship which supersedes use and is what we both want and need, but is neither consumable nor disposable.
Merry Christmas to you all! I pray you are renewed, moment by moment, by the gift of salvation, and grow moment by moment in the likeness of the Babe! I offer the prayers below as beautiful additions to you daily prayers for the season---and beyond.
“Lord, I thank You for coming to earth so You could redeem me. When I think of the extent to which You were willing to go in order to save me, it makes me want to shout, to celebrate, and to cry with thankfulness. You love me so much, and I am so grateful for that love. Without You, I would still be lost and in sin. But because of everything You have done for me, today I am free; my life is blessed; Jesus is my Lord; Heaven is my home; and Satan has no right to control me. I will be eternally thankful to You for everything You did to save me! I pray this in Jesus' name!” — Rick Renner
“Father, Today I celebrate the reality of Your presence in my life. I celebrate Your birth, Your life, Your death, and Your resurrection. And as I celebrate, Lord, help me to be "God with skin on" to those in need around me. Open my eyes and let me see them as You see them! I love You. Happy birthday Jesus! In Jesus name, Amen.” — Mary Southerland
“God, our Creator, we offer this humble prayer on Christmas Day. We come to worship with a song of thanks in our hearts—a song of redemption, a song of hope and renewal. We pray for joy in our hearts, hope in our God, love to forgive, and peace upon the earth. We ask for the salvation of all our family members and friends, and we pray your blessings on all people. May there be bread for the hungry, love for the unlovable, healing for the sick, protection for our children, and wisdom for our youth. We pray for the forgiveness of sinners and abundant life in Christ. Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with your love and power. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.” — Rev. Lia Icaza Willetts
“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal those broken in spirit, to feed the hungry, to release the oppressed, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among all peoples, to make a little music with the heart. And to radiate the Light of Christ, every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say. Then the work of Christmas begins.” — Howard Thurman
“May the blessing of joy abide within you; May the blessing of peace rest upon you; May the blessing of love flow out through you; May all the blessings of the Lord be yours at Christmas and in the new year.” — Author Unknown
God Bless You all,
OK, I agree, that seems an absurd question, but there is a lesson to be found in everything.
We were doing fine; the septic system was doing what it did—until it didn’t. No one expected the failure; it had been quietly working behind the scenes contributing to the smooth operation of everyday life. The breakdown was catastrophic and sudden: one day it worked—one day it didn’t.
The breakdown was a “wound” in every aspect of our parish life. We were consumed with understanding the problem, addressing the immediate needs, seeking a professional to help, planning a remedy, and waiting for repair. Going through this process meant added expenses, time lost/dedicated away from other planned endeavors, and many consultations and reflections on what had happened and how we were addressing it.
Last week, after months of waiting, in one single day, the massive repair was begun and completed—almost. Where there was once sidewalk and grass there is now make-shift pallet walkways and mulch But the planning and waiting are over—we are “back in business.” The repair was successful, but the scar of the work that was done will be with us for a long time, forever in fact. Our system runs fine now, but the effort to get things fixed took its toll and, in fact, it isn’t over. We will need to revisit the work in 3 months to complete the site repair, and from now on we will need to conduct regular maintenance on the new system (necessity of the changes that were made).
So, it seems the comparison of the septic repair and our personal healing isn’t so absurd after all. In truth my point is not the comparison, it is rather that inspiration in response to pain and “likeness” to our fears and worries exist all around us. God has provided for us by gifting us with imaginations that are much more that a lens to augment super hero movies. Our imaginations make it possible for us to see beyond the mundane and forgettable and to focus on the beautiful and inspiring.
Once we have been wounded, we often emotionally flee from the event, even in our memories. We struggle to not remember because we don’t want to live there--in the pain; but it stays with us forever, a scar that signals and a sign we can’t ignore. God would have us confront this fear and embrace what must be done, to see it for what it was and to live into “it” today. We cannot fix it alone, we need a professional to help, God has volunteered to work with us and we, in grateful loving response, take on the responsibility of tending the needs of the “system”—our lives.
I will never be able to, nor would I want to, walk past the new leach field without thinking of the glory and grace of God. The power of love and the provision of the Holy Spirit to help me embrace Jesus, the Shepherd of my soul, is mercifully presented in every event and through each encounter of my life. I only pray that I will never overlook God’s reminders of divine presence, the beautiful and inspiring in everything I see.
Joy in Christ,
C. H. Spurgeon is regarded as one of the greatest preachers of the modern era. Born in Kelvedon, Essex, England on 19 June 1834, Spurgeon grew into one of the most influential churchmen of his day and remains a studied and quoted preacher in every denomination to this day. Pastor of the congregation of the New Park Street Chapel (later the Metropolitan Tabernacle) in London for 38 years, Spurgeon preached and taught through several major upheavals in the church. No matter the controversy, he was quick to point out that at the center of everything there lies the Cradle and the Cross. If we have any need, we need only recognize that the fulfilment of our desire is not the ‘it’ of our mind, but rather the HE of our spirit.
Spurgeon wrote in Morning and Evening,
All that the believer has must come from Christ, but it comes solely through the channel of the Spirit of grace. Just as all blessings flow to you through the Holy Spirit, so also no good thing can come out of you in holy thought, devout worship, or gracious act apart from the sanctifying operation of the same Spirit.
Even if the good seed is sown in you, it still lies dormant until He works in you to will and to do of His own good pleasure.
Do you desire to speak for Jesus—how can you unless the Holy Spirit touches your lips?
Do you desire to pray? Sadly, what dull work it is unless the Spirit makes intercession for you!
Do you desire to subdue sin? Would you be holy? Would you imitate your Master? Do you desire to rise to superlative heights of spirituality? Are you looking to be made like the angels of God, full of zeal and love for the Master’s cause? You cannot without the Spirit—“Apart from me you can do nothing.”
O branch of the vine, you can have no fruit without the sap! O child of God, you have no life within you apart from the life that God gives you through His Spirit!
So let us not grieve Him or provoke Him to anger by our sin. Let us not quench Him even in one of His faintest motions in our soul; let us foster every suggestion and be ready to obey every prompting.
If the Holy Spirit is indeed so mighty, let us attempt nothing without His; let us begin no project and carry on no enterprise and conclude no transaction without seeking His blessing.
Let us give Him the due homage of feeling our entire weakness apart from Him, and then depend alone upon Him, having this for our prayer: “Open my heart and my whole being to Your fullness, and uphold me with Your Spirit when I have received that Spirit in my inward parts.” John 15:5 Morning and Evening, C. H. Spurgeon
At first glance, some of Spurgeon’s words may seem provocative, even off-putting; but as we live into them, we find peace and comfort there. If you are feeling afflicted this Advent season, weary and heavy burdened by life in general, Spurgeon’s reflection reminds us to let the Holy Spirit carry what we should not. Enter into the sacred space of Advent by receiving the joy already prepared for us. “The Holy Spirit is indeed…mighty.”
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†