|Homily Sunday Before Nativity|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever.
Today we celebrate the forefeast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, which is also a celebration of the lineage of Christ. In today’s readings we hear, in a certain sense, two different kinds of “genealogies.” One of them is in Hebrews. We hear of the spiritual ancestry of Christ and the Jewish people. We hear of holy men who strove by faith to receive the promise. In Matthew we are given a long genealogy which culminates in the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ: the hope, the promise which Hebrews spoke of.
What is this hope? What is this promise? It can be summed up in a few words: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”
“and they shall call his name Emmanuel.” Except….we don’t really call Him that do we? We call Him by another name. His parents didn’t name Him Emmanuel. The reading even says it: “and thou shalt call his name JESUS.”
“How was it then, one may say, that His name was not called Emmanuel, but Jesus Christ? Because he said not, “thou shalt call,” but “they shall call,” that is, the multitude, and the issue of events. For here he puts the event as a name: and this is customary in Scripture, to substitute the events that take place for names. Therefore, to say, “They shall call” Him “Emmanuel,” means nothing else than that they shall see God amongst men. For he hath indeed always been amongst men, but never so manifestly.
So we see that a name can also mean an event or activity. This is important to keep in mind, especially when we are dealing with the Lord. Why is this so important when thinking of the Lord? It is important because of the answers to two questions: what do we think salvation is, and how do names work in the ancient mind?
First let’s look at what salvation is. John’s Gospel chapter 17 verse 3 gives us a very concise answer in a prayer by our Lord to His Father:
“And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3) St. Cyril comments on Verse 3: “He defines faith as the mother of eternal life, and says that the power of the true knowledge of God will be such as to cause us to remain for ever in a state of incorruption, and blessedness, and sanctification.” (St. Cyril, Chapter V paragraph 1). When we hear words like sanctification or glorification in the Bible we should think of theosis. So salvation is knowing God, being sanctified by God, partaking in the Divine Energies of God. Now we come to the Name of God and its importance.
Several verses of John Chapter 17 speak of God’s name. Verse 6 tells us that the name of God has been manifested to the disciples and other verses ask that the disciples be kept by the name of God. Names have power, then, even to keep someone safe from evil.
In ancient societies, Judaism included, to know the name of someone was to know something about them. The name that Jesus manifests to the disciples is “I Am,” or “Yahweh.” So we can see that the disciples have been given knowledge of God through Christ who is one with the Father. Blessed Theophylact writes that this name, “I Am” was already known by the Jews, but that Christ is now manifesting the name of God, giving the knowledge of God, to the whole world now. The gentiles as well as the Jews can have knowledge of the One True God through His Son Jesus Christ. Blessed Theophylact says that the Gentiles may have known God previously only as the demi-urge or Creator, but now with Christ they may know God as Father. Now the Gentiles may know the only true God and Jesus Christ who was sent by Him.(Bl. Theophylact, 258) One modern Orthodox writer teaches us that “by Name, Christ means the manifested power of God which the Father publicly revealed through the Son as a revelation of his faithfulness and love.” (The Gospel of John Beholding the Glory ,p.290)
So we can see that the name Emmanuel, though not a “proper” name that Jesus went by, was a manifestation of the power of God, the activity of God within time. It is an event, as St. John Chrysostom tells us. We are told in no uncertain terms who Jesus Christ is. He is God with us. We have a constant reminder of His showing forth the Name of God, I Am when one looks at any icon of Christ. In the halo, one will see the Greek words o Wn, or the Existing One. Christ manifests this power of God, this energy of God to His disciples. Indeed, on the feast of the Transfiguration we commemorate when Christ revealed this energy to the Apostles so that they would know that He was God and that He went to His crucifixion voluntarily. When the guards came to arrest Jesus, He asks them who they seek. They say Jesus of Nazareth. When He says I am He (in Greek He says the words I Am), the guards fall down at the power of this statement. He has said God’s name which describes the power of God. Jesus has shown the disciples again that the guards could not arrest Him unless He allowed it.
We could even look at Jesus’ proper name in this way. The name Jesus means God Saves, or savior. Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us, Who is saving us. He is bringing us into knowing God (not just knowing about Him alone, but knowing Him). By these names we learn what Jesus has done for us.
It is important for us to realize, though, that knowing God by His activities does not mean we know God as He is in Himself….or as the Church would put it, we know God by His energies, but not according to His essence. Since we are created beings, we can’t even begin to understand the inner workings of an uncreated being like God. St.Gregory of Nyssa says, even our use of the word “God” is an identification of His energy. He writes, “Likewise the term God (Theos) we have taken from His providential and overseeing activity. In this manner, then, by the term God we have been taught about a certain partial activity of the divine nature, but we have not attained an understanding of God’s essence by means of this word.”
“Emmanuel,” “Jesus.” These words, these names, tell us of the activity of God with us. They show forth God’s energies showered upon us. This is not to confuse Our Lord with an energy, though. It just tells us that His Name tells us about His love for us. When we realize the great chasm that separates the Uncreated God from His creation we become even more astounded by the unbounded love He has for us when he bridges that separation between us. When the Uncreated Existing One, the Great I Am, humbles himself and becomes one of us to bring us up to Him, to fill us with His divine energy in baptism, in the Eucharist, in all the mysteries of the Church, during our prayer….we can only say Alleluia if we can say anything at all. For the Name Jesus does not just reveal an energy of God, an activity that He does (saving us), the Name Jesus also reminds us that the God who saves us is a Person. The Great I Am became a man named Jesus. Our salvation is not just knowledge about someone…it is knowing a person for whom our salvation is personal.
During the vigil for Nativity, the service of Great compline celebrated. In that service we sing the hymn “God is with us.” Listen closely, attentively, pray the words of that great hymn. In it we hear the words of Who our God is for us:
“And His Name shall be called the Angel of Great Counsel, Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Ruler, Prince of Peace, The Father of the World to Come.
God is with us! Understand this, o nations, and submit yourselves, for God is with us!”
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, amen.
Christ is in our midst!