Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day 2016

“Anno Domini (AD): the Year of our Lord”

Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-12
Mark 1:21-28

“Do not be afraid or discouraged … for the battle is not yours, but God's.”  2 Chronicles 20:15

Anno Domini (or AD) is a Latin phrase translated to mean, “The Year of the Lord”.  When I was a child, I guess I had been taught that BC meant “Before Christ” and AD meant “after Death”.  In some circles this is probably still what is believed; and for Christians, it is the constant reminder that human history was profoundly impacted by the Birth of Messiah.  For people of faith there is no “Before Common Era” (BCE) nor “Common Era” (CE) – for the Messiah of The Holy God is anything but “common”.

Yet because society has chosen the generic BCE and CE designations, the Church must be on constant guard against allowing “The Year of The Lord” to become generic, “common”, routine, mundane.  A pseudo-religious means of designating a point in history when Messiah came into the world must not be rendered meaningless by the neglect of the Church. 

If we as the Church are the Body of Christ In The World today (and indeed we are!), then every year must truly belong to Him not simply because of His birth and not because we say so - but because of the Honor and Glory expressed by the Whole Church because He is truly Lord and Head of the obedient Church.

Even what is “common” (or “unclean”) can come into the Church and often does so without challenge or accountability because we think we’re being non-judgmental in vainly trying to make peace by appeasing rather than confronting what is “common”.  Yet what is so striking about this portion of Mark’s Gospel is not that Jesus taught in a synagogue with extraordinary authority or even that He cast out an unclean spirit.  What is most eye-catching about this reading is the fact – even the idea!! – that an “unclean spirit” could even be in a place of worship, let alone function there! 

That Jesus is no ordinary Person or Teacher goes without saying among Christians.  When we think of worship of the One True God, we generally think of The Word being read and expounded upon; drawing as much meaning as possible so the Word can be better understood and received for all its sacred value.  This is how the Word becomes flesh in the Church! 

So while it may go without saying the Scriptures were surely being read in the synagogue, it had to be The Word Himself which provoked the unclean spirit.  Not the words on the scrolls – the Word in the Flesh, the Presence of something remarkable rather than ordinary; maybe sometimes even confounding, but never “common”.

This may disturb some of us on a fundamental level because of the value we place in the Written Word, and rightly so, yet we cannot pretend words on a page can possibly have the same effect as The Word in the Flesh – not only in Christ Himself but in the Church whose entire life and well-being depend on, and is defined by, the Word which became Flesh and is yet alive today only in the fruits of the Spirit in the flesh of the Church. 

So what was it that provoked this unclean spirit that it would have made itself known in the Presence of Jesus – especially if there was any suspicion Jesus had indeed “come to destroy” them?  4th century Church Father St. Ambrose believed the unclean spirit could not help itself because it was “compelled and tormented” by the very Presence of the Word, but not the reading of “the words”. 

This, I think, is important for us in understanding the significant difference between “words” and “The Word”; the difference between common knowledge of written words – and faith in the Living Word.  It is the profound difference between a “common” world without Christmas and an extraordinary world because of the Birth of Messiah.  It also signifies the difference between those who will respond to the Word, whether happy or unsettling – and those who reject the accountability inherent to the Word.

St. James reminded his readers “even the demons believe … and tremble” (2:19).  This is to say, the demons have absolute knowledge of the reality of The Holy One.  Where you and I may have our moments of doubt when we are tested, these demons never experience moments like this.  They know.  They “believe” that knowledge as objective Truth, having direct experience with that Truth – not subjective truth as often experienced in human interpretation – especially when the Word is watered down in a vain effort to accommodate and appease as many as possible. 

St. Athanasius believed even this Truth, however, cannot come from an unclean mouth – hence Jesus’ command of silence even as the demon confessed Jesus as the Son of God.  It may not be so much that Jesus did not want to be so identified so early in His ministry, but that such an “unclean” mouth was unworthy of speaking the Truth.

Recall that St. Peter also made a similar confession (Matthew 16:16).  Essentially the same words were spoken, the same declaration made, but Jesus didn’t shut Peter down.  One would be blessed for this confession and the other cursed because the difference between them is that one was spoken from faith, the other from fear.  And not the kind of biblical fear we associate with intense respect, but the kind of fear we may experience when we are at risk of losing something and lack the power to prevent it from happening. 

It must also be said Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God comes not just with the kind of faith as revealed from Above, as Jesus spoke to Peter, but with a deep and abiding love – the absence of which renders faith void and reduces “belief” to nothing more than intellectual knowledge.  Without love, faith is theoretical and has no meaning beyond what one may expect to gain only for oneself – as when we wish to be saved or forgiven, but will not break a sweat to save or forgive another as the Word commands us to. 

What this interaction in Mark’s Gospel suggests for us may be as simple as saying the absence of genuine, abiding, sacrificial Love means the presence of something unclean, something common to the world but ultimately unrecognizable and, thus, unacceptable, in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Religion without faith; faith without deliberate and purposeful expressions of love.

We live in the “Common Era” only if The Living Word is not present in the Holy Church and in our lives as expressions of something wonderful, a sure Peace this world has proved itself incapable of producing – perhaps unwilling to produce in spite of the Word, both inside the Church and outside. 

Anno Domini, on the other hand, is the faithful Proclamation of the Church and the Profession of Her Faith that our Lord came not to condemn but to save; to build up the Church to witness to The Truth, to render aid to those in distress, to demand and provide justice and mercy even to those who seem less than deserving, and to lift up those who have fallen or have been pushed aside.  EVERY.  SINGLE. DAY. That makes up and fully occupies the entire Year of The Lord.

This is the Life we are called into, the Life we are set apart to live and to provide.  For it is that Life which gives and sustains Life even beyond the grave; the very Life offered to us all.  Always in the Year of our Lord.  Amen.

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