Archpastoral Letter for the Nativity 2005

The Bethlehem Treasure of Incense

Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.- Matthew 2.11

To the Beloved Clergy and Faithful of this God-Saved Diocese:

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Christos RaĆŸdajetsja! Slavite Jeho!

Dear Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers, Clergy and Faithful:

Today, we have followed the Shepherds under the wings of Angels. Today, we have seen the Star, and we have traveled with the Wise Men. Today, we have searched in the habitations of the City, and we have found the Family of God in a Cave.

The Prince of Heaven, the Son of God, has embraced human nature in the roots of the earth, amidst the common beasts of the field. Born of God the Father to the young Virgin Mary, and fostered by the elderly and righteous Joseph, Jesus Christ shines with royal majesty - not from a palace, but from a place occupied by the likes of you and me.

There was nothing sentimental about the images of the stable, the beasts and the manger. There was nothing noble about the shepherds. The people who first heard the second chapter of St. Luke in the Roman Empire would have goggled at the idea of royalty stooping so very low.

But that is the very wonder of it all. The Gospel proclaims that in fact, God did stoop so low. Contrary to the sensibilities of high-born rulers and well-heeled merchants, the Son of God became the Son of Man in the middle of life and in the shadows of the earth.

The Christ Child was hidden from the ones who thought that authority lay in the might of armies, and that riches were counted out in pieces of gold. But for those who were convinced that riches and power lay rightly in the Divinity of infinite beauty and peace, the Nativity of Christ was not hidden at all.

Indeed, the Mystery of the Incarnation was unveiled by the shining of a new Star, and the rapturous song of the Angels.

So the Magi who were truly wise recognized the star for what it was, and they traveled the long pilgrimage of adoration. They arrived in the tranquility of starlight, and knelt before the Virgin Theotokos and the Child Christ - the Second Adam, the True King of all Creation, Who would finally set things aright.

They brought with them frankincense, along with gold and myrrh. It was frankincense that was the truly wise recognition of divinity. Incense is never given as a birthday gift. Such a gift is appropriate only for One Who is divine, for the Son of Man Who is the Son of God.

For hundreds of years, if not thousands, before the Birth of Christ, frankincense was the aroma of divine royalty. It was used in the Tabernacle of the wilderness, and in the Temple on Mount Zion. The Hebrew priests of the Old Covenant offered incense, in deep mysteries of the Temple, in prayer for forgiveness and mercy.

And, it turns out, they offered frankincense in the Temple as a prayer of expectation. When the priest and the people prayed in Jerusalem, they recognized that things could not remain as they were. They knew that their religion was but a preparation for a fulfillment to come. Something was wrong with the universe, and with the heart of man. Adam had broken the entire world with sin, and death had polluted life to its very base.

It was clear, in the Old Covenant of the Jews, that there had to come a Second Adam Who would be the Suffering Servant of the human race, Who would fulfill all sacrifice as the Lamb that was slain, Who would be the Son of Man, the Anointed One, Christ of the Ages, the Ancient of Days.

So the frankincense of expectation rose as perfumed smoke to the sky, calling in faith to the God of love, hoping that the Creator would not forsake His works to the despair of sin. King Solomon understood this deep association between incense and longing in the Song of Songs: Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will approach the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense (Song of Songs 4.6).

And so they waited - people, priest and king - in the Temple of Jerusalem, which was called the "mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense." For hundreds of years they waited "until the day breathes and the shadows flee."

The day breathed at the shining of the Daystar. The shadows fled at the brilliance of the Sun of Truth, at the choral shout of "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth!"

For on that day, the God of love so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son.

Who would have thought that this God of love was love precisely because He is Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Who would have ever anticipated that the Son of Man would turn out to be God the Son?

Who could have considered that the Lamb that was slain for the sins of the world would be revealed as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Who swallowed up death by death by the ineffable roar of love - a roaring Word of exaltation that smashed the bronze gates of darkness, a Word that continues to resonate in every corner of the universe and in every heart of man?

Who could have known that this Child Christ, born in a Manger, would be the very Jesus Son of God, Who would sit in splendor on the Judgment Throne at the Last Day, in the dread Tribunal when Christ "fills all in all"?

In the aroma of frankincense, in the incense of humble expectation and hopeful prayer, the Wise Men knew this Child to be the Son of God.

And in that hushed moment, when all of heaven stopped to accompany the adoration of the Magi, the meaning of frankincense was changed forever.

When once it was the hopeful yearning for an unknown future, now it means the glad certainty of Christ Whom we have met, Jesus with Whom we have communed, Who will one day come back to rescue and renew that which is His own.

When once it was the recognition of a royalty so far removed, now it means the intimate relationship with Christ Who has intermingled His fully divine nature with His fully human nature.

When once it was the ritual for Divine distance and difference, now it is the loving prayer of belief, obedience and thanksgiving.

Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense, King David sang (Psalm 141.2), and we all join his words in Vespers, And let the lifting up of my hands be a sacrifice!

In the mystical fragrance of frankincense, let us recognize our King and our God. In this aromatic gift of the Magi, let us answer the invitation of the Holy Trinity. Let us, by prayer and deed, become the aroma of incense in this perishing world. Let us offer the incense of thanksgiving and devotion, for we serve the King of All, and we adore the Child of Bethlehem, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

O come, let us adore Him!

Yours in the Natal Light of the Christ Child,

+METROPOLITAN NICHOLAS

 


Matins Gospel Reading: John 10:1-9

Epistle Reading: St. James' Universal Letter 1:1-18

Gospel Reading: Luke 14:1-11

Photius the Great, Patriarch of Constantinople; Bucolus, Bishop of Smyrna; Barsanuphius the Great and John of Gaza; Afterfeast of the Presentation of Our Lord and Savior in the Temple; St. Ilyan of Homs

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