December 15, 2019; Luke 14: 16-24
Many of us are very busy at this time of year getting ready for Christmas, aren’t we? It’s not just the shopping and the writing and mailing of Christmas cards, and it’s not just the decorating of the house and the Christmas Tree, but for many of us it’s everything associated with the Christmas Dinner as well: the preparation of the table, making place cards, the polishing of the silver, the steaming of the Christmas Pudding, or feeding the fruitcake, baking the cookies, the purchase of the turkeys or geese, or prime ribs of beef, or hams or whatever. Some of the cooking has perhaps already begun, and certainly invitations have been extended or sent out long, long, ago. The money is shelled out, and the hard work of ‘getting ready’ will continue right up to the Great Day itself. It’s exciting. It’s exhausting, but the joy in it is almost palpable. It’s the celebration of the birth of Christ in the Family Church that follows the celebration in the temple. First we gather in the temple and then we gather in our homes. That’s what the “mas” in “Christmas” actually means, ‘gathering.’ Like “synaxis” in Greek, or “sobor” in Russian, “mass” in English means gathering or assembly. Now can you imagine, having put in all of that time, sweat, and money to put on this brilliant dinner, that suddenly all of the invited guests, all of your closest friends and relatives, just decide not to show up? How horrible would THAT be? And suppose that their excuses were, “Well I got a hangnail, so I can’t come,” or “the weatherman said there would be a 10% chance it might drizzle so we can’t take the chance so we’re not coming,” or “one of the strands of Christmas lights on my tree has gone out so I need to stay home and fix it.” Can you imagine? How would you feel? Wouldn’t you be crushed?
Well, the Birth of Christ, the Nativity of Christ, was God’s Christmas card and God’s invitation to all of His nearest and dearest, His own People, to come to His House, to the Banquet of Heaven, to the Feast of the Messiah, to a seat at His own Table. Everything was and is ready, and the price, the very heavy price was paid. It was paid on the Cross. Picture now in your minds Jesus standing on the Mount of Olives and gazing out over the Holy City of David, and hear His words: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37). Hear the pain. Hear the heartbreak. His own chosen people rejected His invitation, they rejected Him!
So who are “the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind” that the Master invites to replace his closest relatives and friends? Who are those homeless who were living rough in “the highways and the hedges” who are likewise invited? They are the Gentiles, us! The Gentiles were crippled and blind because they were pagan idolaters, and they were homeless because they were outside of the Household of God, outside of the Temple. But now, because of Christ, they (we) were invited in! St. Cyril of Alexandria says: “It was necessary, absolutely necessary for the Gentiles, who were restrained in chains by an intolerable tyranny, and fallen under the yoke of the devil, and caught, so to speak, in the indissoluble meshes of their sins, and utterly ignorant of Him Who by nature and in truth is God, that their calling should be very urgent...that they might be able to look up unto God, and taste the sacred doctrines, and leave off their former error, and spring away as it were from the hand of Satan” (Sermon 104 on Luke).
How very grateful we must be for the great love that God has shown to us! We who were not His own now belong to Him. And even more that this, we have all been adopted by Him. We are His dear children who are blessed to dine with Him at every Divine Liturgy, and taste of His Mystical Food every time we receive the Holy Mysteries. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th century wrote: “Under the new covenant there is bread from heaven and the cup of salvation. These sanctify both soul and body, the bread being adapted to the sanctification of the body, the Wine, to the sanctification of the soul. Do not, then, regard the eucharistic elements as ordinary bread and wine: they are in fact the body and blood of the Lord, as he himself has declared...You know also how David referred to this long ago when he sang: ‘Bread gives strength to man’s heart and makes his face shine.’ Strengthen your heart, then, by receiving this bread as spiritual bread, and bring joy to the face of your soul.” Joy. That’s what Christmas means to me. Joy in the Birth of Jesus, joy in being invited into the House of God – the Church, joy in partaking in the Banquet of the Messiah - the Holy Eucharist, and yes, joy in the Christmas dinner. I just hope that the invitees show up! Amen.