Pastoral Letter for the Nativity of Our Lord – ”The Child and the Crucified In a World of Strife and Hardness of Heart”

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Macarie

-by the mercy and care of the Most High, Bishop of the Romanian Diocese of Northern Europe-

a fatherly embrace to beloved brothers in Christ, priests, deacons, monastics, and to all of God’s chosen people, as well as grace, peace and joy from Christ Who was born in Bethlehem’s manger and in the manger of our hearts.

Honourable servants of the Holy Altars,
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,

The feast of Christmas is essentially a feast of joy, since Christ Himself, the Joy surpassing all joy, makes our hearts exultant through His Incarnation. As we read the gospel accounts, we can observe how, in the old world of Israel, who was again in captivity, suffering injustice and betrayed by its leaders, goodness begins to take root through signs, miracles, revelations and providential people. A the heavens are filled with a rustle which also spills over the earth: The Mesiah is coming among us to release us from our captivity and to open the gates of Heaven! Behold how the prophetic promises, the expectation and hope for salvation is fulfilled in humility, far from the vain glory of palaces and the hustle of great cities, in a cave at the edge of the city, and angels, shepherds and the three wise men led by the star take part in it.
 
And all these happen through the Mother of God, from whom the Son of God Himself is born and becomes the Son of the Virgin. She is the one who experienced the unspeakable joy of the spirit which receives the promise of the Lord: “My spirit has rejoices in God, my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of His servant”  (Luke 1, 47-48). The Holy Fathers tell us that the Virgin Mary raised towards God the deepest sigh which human nature could utter. It is also significant that, from all who received the news of the birth of God, the first were the humble shepherds around Bethlehem, to whom the angel said: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2, 10-11). And at the same time, the Evangelist tells us, together with the angel who brought the news of the nativity of the Lord, a “multitude of the heavenly host” praising: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!” (Luke 2, 13-14).
 
How did mankind answer this heavenly invitation? As far as judaic society is concerned, we know how things turned out. It is not a coincidence that the angels first gave the good news to the shepherds, poor and simple people, accustomed with the hardship of life, having fear of God, and hence being more receptive towards the message of peace and good will. However, at the same time, not through angels, but through the three wise men coming from the East, the cultural and political elite of the old Jerusalem also received the news of the nativity of God. Yet their reaction was the precise opposite of the shepherd’s: lack of trust, scandalisation, paranoid fear and finally infanticide. The powerful of this world – and not only them – suffer from the complex of King Midas, who in the Greek mythology would transform anything he touched into gold and who thus lost his own daughter which, after being touched by him, turned into a golden statue. Those who live in the upper spheres of society often restrict their relations with their fellow men to a cynical and strictly utilitarian level, depending on the level in which this contributes to or threatens their power. For Herod, the Nativity of the long awaited Mesiah meant nothing else except a potential competitor to his royal power. He could not and would not see more than that.
 
Behold then, my beloved, the state in which we must find ourselves in order to be able to participate to the great joy of the Nativity of Christ: we need to show goodwill to our fellow men. We need to show kindness to our neighbour – within our family, within our community, near or far, conational to us or not, friend or enemy. In our traditional Christmas carols the following well-known verse has been consecrated as an invitation: “Remember to be kind in times of joy!”  This appears to be a simple invitation and it seems that not much is asked of us: peace, kindness and goodwill is all that is required of us in order to greet He Who is the King of Israel, the King of Kings, the true Son of God. The powerful of this world ask to be honoured with taxes and hard labour, with efforts that involve crowds of people. Yet this Child Who was born to us only asks us to be peacemakers and to show kindness and goodwill. In other words, we are asked to leave behind the egoism, the struggle and the enmity in which we were accustomed to live in, to come out from the eternal war of man against man, which some have regarded as the very essence of human nature, and to adorn our lives and become a beacon of joy to others.

My beloved brothers and sisters
for whom Christ became incarnate,
 
If this is the reaction of contemporary society to the Nativity of Jesus, how do we greet the good news? How do we demonstrate peace, kindness and goodwill among ourselves? The world today is boiling over, seemingly ruled by a legion of unclean spirits which produce confusion, tribulation and anger. Entire nations are divided and many insistently talk about a generalised internal warfare, without arms for the time being, which nevertheless drives out any form of social consensus and institutes a stifling atmosphere of hatred and enmity. Us, christians, have currently become the scape goats of all evils – both real and imaginary – and more and more voices make themselves heard asking for our marginalisation and silencing, in order to make room for a so-called new world of progress and emancipation. Yet how does this Christmas find us, in our Romanian community? It is a great sorrow for me, as a spiritual shepherd, to witness such times of hatred and dissent amongst brothers. Romanians both at home and abroad, struggling with the daily needs of life, often come to despise and hate each other for insignificant reasons. These manifestations are not worthy of a Christian nation.
 
Never in our history did we achieve anything when driven by desire for revenge or hatred. Our great national moments were forged through a common sacrifice and through a general attitude of solidarity. And when strife entered our nation, it was followed by the pain of the disintegration of our country and the communist hell. Nothing can be built through hatred. No good can be achieved by cultivating resentment and contempt. If we cannot learn to be kind, tolerant and forgiving towards those of the same faith and nationality as us, or even towards those from our own families, how will we be able to greet the Mesiah, Christ the Saviour? We are indebted to love our brother no matter who he is and what his opinions are. We are indebted to have compassion towards those who are older or poorer than us, to consider them as a way to salvation, as they give us the opportunity to do good, and not to see them as a burden or as a cause of our problems. Have we forgotten the words of the folk chant which is sang during these times of struggle and strife?

“Why will you always hate me, brother all the time?
Don’t you know that your God is the same as mine?
I am your brother forever
And our souls are joined together
And God is our good Master in heaven.”
 
Fellow Orthodox Christians,
 
Let us carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6,2). Let us resolve to be kind towards each other. Let us show that we can form a community, a nation, being receptive and understanding and showing solidarity both in good times but especially in times of hardship. It will be very hard for us if we will continue to be physically and spiritually scattered, unable to see and treasure a common good and eager to find in our neighbour the scape goat for our difficulties in this world. What does being kind even mean? I would like to share three wonderful stories which illustrate the meaning of this virtue, and I hope you will receive them with an open heart.
 
The first story is from the life of Saint Onufrios the Great. He was abandoned at a monastery as a child, and when he was only seven years old, he had made a habit out of taking bread from the common table and taking it to the icon of the Mother of God with her Child. In his childish innocence, he would look towards the Child in the icon, and then offer bread to the little Jesus with the following words: “You are also young, maybe You are hungry too. Here, take my part and eat”. And Christ the Child would stretch out His hand from the icon and receive the gift. One of the monks noticed at some point what was going on, and filled with fear at seeing this miracle, he told the abbot who, being a spiritual man, asked the cook not to give bread to the child, but to tell him: “Now you go and ask for bread from the One in the icon, to whom you gave so many times!” And the child did as instructed – hungry and with tears in his eyes, he asked for bread from the Child Jesus saying: “Today I didn’t receive any bread and I am hungry. You give me some of Yours, as I also gave you so many times”. And to everyone’s astonishment, the Child Jesus gave Onufrios a large and beautiful bread, which he later shared with all the brethren.
 
The second story is also about a child in a monastery, who was wondering why nobody in the monastic community payed attention to the Man who was Crucified in the middle of the church, and were letting him go hungry. Our child started to put aside food from the common table and to take it in secret to the Crucified Brother, Who would come down from the Cross every night and dine with His little friend. In the end, the monks realised that something unusual was happening to the boy, and they kept watch to see what he did with the food he was putting aside. They were surprised to see that he was taking it to church, and then even more amazed when they tried to look inside and saw that everything was filled with light. When the child came out, they questioned the little child and thus found out about the “Mistery of the Crucified Brother” which the child was feeding.
 
The third story is from the childhood of Saint Teophanos the Confessor. Once, during a very harsh winter, he saw a child of his age but poor and abandoned who was shivering by the side of the road, as he had no proper clothes. He quickly took his own clothes off and wrapped up the nearly frozen child, thus saving his life. He then went back home nearly naked to his parent’s great surprise. When asked by them about his clothes, he replied: “I used them to dress up Christ!”.

My beloved,
 
The stories I have shared with you show us how much Christ treasures a kind, merciful heart. These innocent, delicate and sensitive children saw what the adults around them were unable to see: the vulnerability of the Child and the suffering of the Crucified. For the Almighty God emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant (Philipians 2,7), becoming a Child, a defenceless being, depending on the love of His Holy Mother and of those around him. The Child needs constant atention and care, while the Crucified summarises in His suffering all the pains and the crucifications which men have gone through and will go through until the end of time. Thus we have two realities, and at the same time two archetypes, which demand our compassion and assistance. Let us cultivate, beloved brother and beloved sister, this holy sensibility in our own children, let us accustom them to Christian love and mercy towards our suffering neighbours, and let us make this a priority above any other. Our children can learn many things, and we fret to take care of many things, believing that we will help them find meaning in this world, but only one thing is needful in order to see the Lord and to be seen by the Lord: a good heart.
 
How can we teach our children about Christian love unless we practice it ourselves? We are all called to cultivate sensibility and to show goodwill towards our fellow man and solidarity towards those who are suffering. Let us keep them in our prayers, let us seek them out when they are lonely and ill, let us lend them a shoulder to cry on and let us rejoice with them when they are rejoicing. Let us do these things for everyone, starting with those who are near us and who need us. For example, we all know about the difficulties faced by the family of Camelia-Mihaela Simcala, the Romanian doctor from Finland, who is now separated from her two children, Johan-Mihail and Maria-Alexandra. Their only desire is to be together and to return home, but they are denied the fulfilment of this natural desire. Let us fervently pray for this family and for all those who are suffering because of separation and isolation and for all those who feel abandoned and who cannot partake of the basic joys of life.
 
To be kind means to see with the eyes of our hearts the Child and the Crucified in our neighbour who is going through a time of trouble or need. It means having a kind, sensitive heart, which we should share with those who hunger and thirst after love and understanding, as one would share a warm loaf of bread. This is the only way in which we can truly become witnesses to the nativity of Christ, working for peace, kindness and goodwill. Let us cast aside from us all thoughts of condemnation, contempt, resentment or scorn for our brothers. Let us gaze with compassion towards everyone and let us remember that we are, ultimately, “in the same condemnation” (Luke 23, 40): crucified together with Christ – Him as an innocent man, and us as thieves. Let us not take after the thief nailed on the left handside who mocked and blasphemed the Crucified one, but let us follow the good thief on the right handside, who asked with tears in his eyes: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23, 42).  Let us therefore not hesitate to renew our souls with repentance by obtaining forgiveness through the Mystery of Confession and by uniting ourselves eucharistically to Christ the Child, who is carried on His Mother’s arms in every Liturgy, lovingly and compassionately offering Himself to us after having embraced the Cross for us, so that we may hear from him the redeeming words: “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt though be with me in paradise” (Luke 23,43). Amin.
 
Fervently praying for you and wishing you all good things,
Your servant, brother and friend,

+Bishop Macarie
 
Written in the diocesan centre in Stockholm, Sweden, at the Nativity of our Lord in the year of salvation 2019
 

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