We have just celebrated the Nativity of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ and the tradition is that we continue to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, for 12 days after Christmas, or until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.
We can do this by meditating on the deeper meaning of what we are celebrating and, as this year comes to and end, to also reflect back on how we were transformed by the grace of God this year, to take stock of how we grew into becoming more like Christ, and looking ahead to the new year before us, to again have a sense of excitement and anticipation of the life experiences that will come and what more God has planned for us according to His will.
In the very last sentence of the gospel reading for the Sunday after the Nativity, St. Matthew quotes an ancient and obscure prophecy that pointed to the identity of the Messiah: “He Shall be called a Nazarene.”
When the Islamic terrorists known as ISIS where rampaging through Syria and Iraq, as they were going through the villages and towns, whenever they found a home of a Christian family, or a Christian business, they would take a can of red spray paint and write the letter “n” in Arabic, on the wall of the house, and draw a circle around it. This was to identify the occupant of the house, to mark them, as “Nazarenes” or “Nasraye” in Arabic. Their intent was to intimidate the Christians, it was a warning that unless they abandoned their homes and properties within 48 hours, they would be killed. Many suffered that fate, but many also stood up fearlessly against it and despite all the threats, the bombs, the war, the kidnappings and forced slavery, the death, crucifixions and mutilations, they refused to deny Christ, they refused to leave, despite all that danger, they still went to church to worship God on Sunday morning.
For the earliest followers of Christ, the word “Christian” was also originally a mocking and derogatory term but it became the identifier of an entire civilization. The cross was originally a symbol of shame but it became a symbol of victory. This act of spray painting the letter “n” for “Nazarene” on the walls of Christian homes was also intended to mock and intimidate, but instead it became a worldwide symbol of courage and faith.
At the end of the year, we have an opportunity to look back and reflect on who we are and to ask, have we earned the right to be called Christians? Will there come a day when people will remember us and say “they were called Nazarenes”? Are we worthy of that name?
We do not have bombs falling on us. No one is marking the walls of our homes with letters. No one is threatening us or killing us. We have all the freedom and opportunity to worship, to build, to grow, to share with others the fullness of the Christian faith that is only found in Orthodoxy. Are we taking full advantage of this opportunity in this moment in time? Or are we taking it all for granted?
The persecuted Christians of the Middle East, of Greece and Asia Minor, of Russia, of Africa, of China, will be remembered as courageous Nazarenes, as faithful Christians. We have to ask ourselves, in all honesty and in all humility, what will the world remember the Orthodox Christians who now live in the relatively peaceful West be remembered for one day? What will we be known for? If it will be only for our food festivals, concerts, crab feeds, dance groups, and beautiful architecture then there’s something very wrong.
How we will be remembered will be determined by how much we succeed or fail in remembering and preserving who we are as Christians and the Faith we have received, what our brothers and sisters were martyred for.
We can do this by being stewards of our church and caring for it and each other on behalf of those who no longer have a church or community. We can worship on behalf of those who have no place to worship. We can live the Orthodox life in our homes, in our families, in school and our jobs. We can struggle to become holy, to repent, to purify our hearts and minds and souls through prayer, fasting, confession and love for others. Only in this way are we truly deserving and worthy of being called by the name of Orthodox Christians.
St. Paul repeatedly tells us what we must do and who we must be in order to also be called Nazarenes and Christians:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
As we begin the new year, let us all strive daily to do these things that St. Paul reminds us of. May it be a year where we cling to our Christian name and way of life even more deeply, no matter what comes our way, whether sadness or joy, struggle or blessings, life or death. Let us remember how precious each and every day is, how loved we are by Christ and how valuable each and every person is in the eyes of God.