27 December 2010

Homily on Advent & St Nicholas

At last, here is my lone Advent homily, preached on Monday, 6 December. I’ve been lacking in much enthusiasm to post it because that week was a bad one in many ways, and I received a quite discouraging response to the homily from one parent. But here it is anyway, and readers can judge for themselves whether I have, as was alleged, claimed that ‘Santa Claus’ doesn’t exist.

Second Sunday in Advent

Epistle: Romans 15:4-13
Gospel: St Luke 21:25-33

Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope (ἵνα διὰ τῆς ὑπομονῆς καὶ διὰ τῆς παρακλήσεως).

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is particularly fitting at this time of year that in today’s Epistle we are reminded of things ‘written aforetime’, for it is of course the season of Advent – a period when we frequently think back to the ancient prophecies of Christ’s coming. Likewise, it is meet and right that we ask ourselves what is the ‘patience and comfort of the Scriptures’ of which St Paul speaks, and what is the ‘hope’ we have through them.

The answer to the first question is suggested by the very next verse – where St Paul refers to the ‘God of patience and consolation’ (θεὸς τῆς ὑπομονῆς καὶ τῆς παρακλήσεως). ‘Consolation’ here is the KJV translation of ‘paraclesis’: the same word that is used in verse 4 and there translated ‘comfort’. Elsewhere, Christ refers to the Holy Spirit as ‘the Paraclete’, ‘the Comforter’ – in other words, God Himself is the comfort of the Scriptures. The ‘God of patience and comfort’ is also the ‘patience and comfort of the Scriptures’.

This is further confirmed when we note the patristic teaching that before the Incarnation, Christ became ‘incarnate’ in Scripture. The 7th-c. Byzantine theologian, St Maximus the Confessor, for example, writes:

The Logos [or Word] of God is called flesh not only inasmuch as He became incarnate, but in another sense as well. . . . [W]hen he draws near to men who cannot with the naked mind come into contact with noetic realities in their naked state, He selects things which are familiar to them, combining together various stories, symbols, parables and dark sayings; and in this way He becomes flesh. Thus at the first encounter our mind comes into contact not with the naked Logos but with the incarnate Logos, that is, with [the] various sayings and stories [of Scripture]. [1]

So the ‘patience and comfort of the Scriptures’ gave to the righteous men of the Old Testament the hope that the Word of God incarnate in those Scriptures would one day become incarnate as a Man. This was the Advent which they so eagerly anticipated, as when the Psalmist says, ‘O God of hosts, return again; and look down from heaven and behold, and visit this vineyard, and perfect that which Thy right hand hath planted’ (79:15-16 LXX). Thus, it is appropriate that during the season of Advent we recall their longing.

But – having ‘received the promise’ – we are now able to receive the Second Advent: the coming of Christ into our hearts and souls. A mediaeval French Cistercian, Guerric D’Igny, writes:

Assuredly He comes to us [in our hearts] now to ensure that His first coming will not have been in vain, and to avoid having to meet us at the last [coming] in wrath. In this middle advent He is intent on reforming our spirit of pride and patterning us anew on the humility He showed forth at His first coming . . . This personal visitation, which imparts to us the grace of the first advent and holds promise of the glory of the last, should be the object of our heart’s desire, the goal of all our striving. [2]

Thus, it is through the ‘patience and comfort’ of Christ dwelling in our hearts and of our continual prayer before Him there, that the great hope of His Third Advent is kindled within us. For Guerric’s words also serve as an excellent reminder of today’s Gospel. In this passage of Luke 21, Christ speaks of His third and final Advent, that is, His return to judge the quick and the dead. Incarnate in Scripture, Christ’s voice is humble and quiet – we must read attentively if we are to recognise Him there. Similarly, incarnate as a Babe in the manger, as the Man of Many Sorrows, Christ is again humble and quiet – we must have Faith to recognise who He is and to understand God’s revelation in His Son. But commenting on Christ’s words, ‘[T]hen shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’, Bl Theophylact writes:

All shall see Him, both those who believe and those who do not believe. . . . [A]nd both He and His Cross will shine more brightly than the sun and will be recognized by all. [3]

Thus, of those who did not attend to the two Incarnations – in Scripture and in the flesh – St Gregory the Great writes, ‘They are going to see in power and majesty Him Whom they chose not to hear in a state of humility.’ And, as if thinking himself of the reference in today’s Epistle to ‘the patience and comfort of the Scriptures’ and ‘the God of patience and comfort’, St Gregory writes, ‘To the extent that they do not now submit their hearts to His patience, they will then experience His power more exactingly.’ [4]

That this be not so with us, as Guerric of Igny says, let us welcome Him into our hearts today, and attend with eagerness to His words and example for us as we prepare to celebrate His wondrous Nativity according to the flesh. For, in Guerric’s words, ‘just as, at His Second Coming, we shall run towards Him with physical energy and joy, so do we hasten to Bethlehem with jubilant heart and spirit.’ [5]

We are helped by the Church to do this on this day in particular, which on the Gregorian calendar is dedicated to the memory of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Bishop of Myra, later known as ‘Santa Claus’. Of St Nicholas, one modern Benedictine writer has noted:

At the outset of Advent, a season that speaks to us deeply of hope because ‘the Lord is near’, as the Liturgy announces, we celebrate the feast of St Nicholas. His feast is an important pause on our Advent journey, for his life is an example of Gospel living for Christians of all times and places. [6]

Perhaps the most famous illustration of this is the very first story ever told about St Nicholas giving gifts in secret at night. A once wealthy man had lost his fortune and was soon going to have to sell his three daughters as slaves so that they would be taken care of. Hearing of this, St Nicholas went through the dark streets of Myra, and secretly left a bag of gold inside the man’s house. He did this two more times, and on the third occasion, the man waited up and found the compassionate Bishop hurrying away so he would not be seen. But this is only one instance among many of St Nicholas’s devotion to Christ’s words and example. As St Demetrius of Rostov says in his Menology:

For the character of the saint was as a child-loving father, and his countenance shone with Divine grace like an angel of God. From his face, as from the face of Moses, emanated a bright ray, and to him who only looked at him there was great benefit. For him who was burdened with some kind of passion or affliction of soul, it was enough to fix his gaze on the saint in order to receive consolation in his sorrow; and he who conversed with him already improved in good. [7]

Of course, in our day St Nicholas has been largely transformed into a cartoonish figure with little connection to the historical Bishop of Myra, much less to the Christian faith. But as Christians we must not forget that the great Wonderworker, as great a figure as he is, only desires to point us toward Christ, whose Incarnation he proclaims. May we prepare for the Feast with sobriety and celebrate it with joy.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] St Maximus the Confessor, ‘Second Century on Theology’ [§60], The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, ed. St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain & St Macarius of Corinth, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1990), p. 151.

[2] Guerric of Igny, ‘The Second Sermon for Advent’, The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the 12th Century, tr. & ed. Pauline Matarasso (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 131.

[3] Bl Theophylact, The Explanation by Bl Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, tr. Fr Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997), p. 274.

[4] I got these comments from the notes appended to this passage in Vol. 2 of The Orthodox New Testament published by Holy Apostles Convent. I shall add the exact reference when I return to school and have my copy of this book in front of me.

[5] Guerric, p. 130.

[6] Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), p. 12.

[7] Service, Akathist, Life & Miracles of St Nicholas the Wonderworker (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1996), p. 83.