Sunday after the Nativity of Christ, December 30, 2012
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
A recording of this sermon is available via Ancient Faith Radio.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Christ is born!
On this day, the Sunday after the Nativity of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, we remember how the Virgin Mary with the Righteous Joseph took the child Jesus to Egypt, fleeing from the massacre of the Holy Innocents that the evil king Herod inflicted on the people of Judea, hoping to kill the One born King of the Jews. Some 14,000 boys age two and under were killed, the first of many millions to be sacrificed for the sake of the Lord Jesus. Their feast day was yesterday. The mournful English Christmas song “Coventry Carol” is in commemoration of this slaughter.
The Scriptures don’t say much about that trip to Egypt nor of how long the Lord and His family spent there, though there are traditions that come out of Egyptian Christianity that give us a deeper story regarding the sojourn of the God-man in Egypt. One such story is passed on to us today by St. Nikolaj of Zicha, a Serbian saint who spent some time as the rector of St. Tikhon’s Seminary here in Pennsylvania in the 1950s. In his work The Prologue from Ohrid, St. Nikolaj writes:
When the holy family fled before Herod’s sword to Egypt, robbers leapt out on the road with the intention of stealing something. The righteous Joseph was leading the donkey, on which were some belongings and on which the Most-holy Theotokos was riding with her Son at her breast. The robbers seized the donkey to lead it away. At that moment, one of the robbers approached the Mother of God to see what she was holding next to her breast.
The robber, seeing the Christ-child, was astonished at His unusual beauty and said in his astonishment: “If God were to take upon Himself the flesh of man, He would not be more beautiful than this Child!” This robber then ordered his companions to take nothing from these travelers. Filled with gratitude toward this generous robber, the Most-holy Virgin said to him: “Know that this Child will repay you with a good reward because you protected Him today.”
Thirty-three years later, this same thief hung on the Cross for his crimes, crucified on the right side of Christ’s Cross. His name was Dismas, and the name of the thief on the left side was Gestas. Beholding Christ the Lord innocently crucified, Dismas repented for all the evil of his life. While Gestas reviled the Lord, Dismas defended Him, saying: “This man hath done nothing amiss” (Luke 23:41). Dismas, therefore, was the wise thief to whom our Lord said: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Thus the Lord granted Paradise to him who spared Him in childhood.
We might be tempted to dismiss this story as a mere legend, but if you have experience with the way the Lord prefers to work, there are many such “coincidences.” He is God, after all. But even if it is a legend, which I don’t believe it is, there is something here for us that tells us something about our salvation and the kind of God we serve.
This thief Dismas first encountered God in the flesh with the worst of intentions. He planned to steal from the Lord and His family and possibly even to do violence to Him. So often when people encounter what is holy, they treat it with disdain or even as an object for exploitation. Some people even treat church in this way, that it is a place not for them to commit their lives to God and to be healed by Him, but rather for anything else—perhaps for some kind of prestige, to feel like they are in charge, to see their friends, to preserve a culture, or even just out of habit.
But then comes a moment when Dismas and people who are like him encounter real beauty, and he is so struck with the power of the beauty of God—not with doctrinal argument, with strong persuasion, or with offers of personal gain, but simply with beauty and wonder. Here is a man who is converted, even if just for a moment, by beauty and wonder.
I can think of few themes more suitable for this Christmas season. When we look into the manger at God as a human child, there is much to wonder at. How can this be God? How can He empty Himself of His divine glory and power and majesty and take on our humanity, while still remaining God? How can he simultaneously be here on Earth and in Heaven with His Father? How can He Whose character is to be outside of time step into it? How can the one Who is boundless and invisible become bounded and visible?
Not even the angels know the answers to those questions, but they do have the right idea when it comes to how we should react at seeing this awesome mystery. “Glory to God in the highest,” indeed.
We have to imagine that this thief, Dismas, while having been momentarily changed by what he saw riding on that donkey into Egypt, probably went back to his old ways. After all, the next time we meet him is on a cross, suffering the punishment for a life of crime. Yet there must have been something he carried with him all those years, because when he came face to face with that divine beauty again, this time marred by scourging, beating and crucifixion, he saw the same thing. He saw purity and innocence. He looked again with wonder on the God become man, Who was taking away the sins of the world, even the sins of that thief.
From the story of Saint Dismas—for, yes, we do count him among the saints, since the Lord Himself said he made it to Paradise—we learn the remarkable power of the Gospel. The Gospel is not only a piece of news, but it is an encounter with the Lord of Heaven and Earth. It is coming face to face with a love that demands everything from you but pours out more than you could possibly ever ask or give. The Gospel is so compelling that anyone who truly hears it can never walk away the same.
Even Dismas, with a life defined by public sin that ended in what many might regard as his just deserts, carried the seed of salvation with him for decades, and then it sprouted at the opportune moment. There is always hope. None of us is ever a lost cause. None of us can ever be so callused that the love of God cannot break through and turn our hearts from hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, surging with the life of the Holy Trinity.
Perhaps you are one whose sins sometimes overwhelm them, who are so aware of their shortcomings in comparison to Christ that they believe that He would never bring them to live with Him forever. But He can save you.
Perhaps you are one who has an occasional, inconsistent faith—sometimes with real love in your heart, but sometimes with cold negligence. Today, you want to love God, but tomorrow, you just sort of get on with life. Christ can save you.
Perhaps you are one whose heart is so overgrown with the weeds and thorns of the cares of this world—money, possessions, career, power, prestige, position, luxury—that encounters with true beauty just leave you bored. The gates of Heaven look much less interesting than nearly any form of transient entertainment. Christ can save you, too.
Most especially during this holy season, we are invited by the angels, the shepherds, the Magi, the Righteous Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the Lord Himself, to come and stand at the manger. We do not stand here to see a cute baby, someone Whose birthday is just an occasion for presents, a few days off work, and to bring retailers back into the black. We are here to wonder.
And if we are filled with the awe and wonder at seeing the very Author of beauty Himself become one of us, then perhaps we can be saved. If we are even for a moment inspired by something nobler, something higher, something finer than the momentary pleasures of this ever more trivial yet tragic world, then there is hope for us.
My prayer for you is that this year, God will plant a seed in your heart that will sprout, grow and blossom, that will so change who you are that when you stand face to face with Him at the end, it will be the most natural thing in the world for Christ to say to you: “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
To Him, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is born!