• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

The Manger of Our Hearts

“At this Christmas when Christ comes, will He find a warm heart? Mark the season of Advent by loving and serving the others with God's own love and concern.” ~ Mother Teresa

What did Christ find when he came to us in the manger?

He was born a small and innocent infant. A few were gathered around him. The Blessed Virgin Mary held Him in her arms, a young girl with a love for God pure and vibrant. St. Joseph knelt by the cradle, struck by God’s providence and mystery. No doubt, a few women were present to wash the infant in warm water and swaddle him in linen. Some shepherds and three magi stood bearing gifts and worshipping reverently.

But not everyone responded in this way. Most of the world was indifferent. They were too caught up in themselves to notice the Christ child. Herod was incensed. He wanted to feel in control of his life, a trap we all fall into. God didn’t fit in his plan and he sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to force Him out. They went and killed every male child under the age of two. So we read,

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

We read these scriptures every Advent, and we can sometimes feel that this is bygone history. After all, Jesus was born 2,000 years ago in a culture so different then ours. But in the Church, in the Life in Christ, that isn’t really the case, is it?

We get an opportunity to be present there too, at the moment of the birth. We too will be judged by the state of our heart at His arrival.

In the Orthodox Church, there’s a tradition through Christmastide to greet each other by saying, “Christ is born!” We don’t say, “Christ was born!” And there’s an important reason for this. God’s incarnation is an eternal event. On Christmas day, we, the Body of Christ, enter into that moment. We participate in the incarnation. We tap into it, in a mystical way, and find ourselves at Christ’s birth.

You can hear this in St. John Chrysostom Christmas homily. “I behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise…Bethlehem this day resembles heaven…This day He Who is, is Born.”

So here’s the challenge for us. When Christ is born on Christmas Day, in what state will He find our hearts?

God’s appearance always means revelation. Our true colors come out. Who will you be in the story: the shepherds, the Herods, or the crowds indifferent?

Will your heart be warm? Will it be cold? Will your breast be full of love and compassion for the people around you? Will it be full of judgment and criticism?

Where will He find us, right here, in this beautiful church in Wichita Falls? Will He see that we are, first and foremost, a loving community, quick to forgive one another, constant in encouraging, and welcoming to all who walk in through those doors? Do we ever let the liturgy get in the way of the loving one another? Do we worship God with our hearts as well as our lips? These are the sorts of things we have to ask ourselves as Christians and as a church, constantly searching, always preparing, and especially during this season of Advent.

I want to take some time now to read what the Scriptures say about this love required in a true Christian community.

“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters…that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47).

It’s interesting that the New Testament spends much more time talking about love and patience among the brethren, then it does about the way we should conduct our services. That doesn’t mean this isn’t important. Paul commands us to worship in proper conduct and our worship service is our link with heaven. The way we worship transforms us. It teaches us peace and quiet as well as how to honor God in awe and reverence. Our worship reminds us that God is holy (‘Aghios’ in Greek, meaning not-earthly and transcendent).

The more we can stretch ourselves to enter into the contemplation and majesty of worship, and the more we can teach our kids to be quiet and prayerful and to participate in that worship, the more we open up our souls to God’s grace. The Orthodox Church has maintained its worship since the first century when the Apostles first celebrated Mass. But while we enter into the Mass, we must neither forget, first and foremost, what our chief obligation is as a Christian community: to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. We love one another by trying not to distract anyone from prayer, and we love by being patient, compassionate, and never judgment. More than anything else, the Liturgy exists to help a community to love.

Moreover, this call to love and serve extends to each and every one of us as individuals, which is why Mother Teresa’s simple words are so true.

“At this Christmas when Christ comes, will He find a warm heart? Mark the season of Advent by loving and serving the others with God's own love and concern.”

Here’s what we heard in our Gospel reading today. The Jews had sent priests and Levites to John the Baptist, and they asked him, “Who are you?” John replied, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23).

What was John’s role in the Ministry of Jesus Christ? He was sent to prepare the world. Christ was coming. Would they be ready? For this reason, John the Baptist has a central place in our Advent meditations. He calls out to us today, saying: “Prepare for Christ is coming,” “Make straight the way for God.”

This is our time to go to confession. If Christ is born and we haven’t confessed, what guilt and pain will he find lingering in our hearts?

This is our time to spend more hours in quiet. When He comes, will we be so tied up in the world that we’ll miss him? Or will we be still enough to hear the angels singing?

This is our time to try harder to forgive and love our neighbor. Is there anyone in your life with whom you still haven’t reconciled? Does anyone continue to get under your nerves? Has anyone hurt you? Love isn’t a feeling. It’s an action. So forgive and love.

We really don’t have much time. Christmas is around the corner. Our death is around the corner, maybe today, tomorrow, next week, in the years to come. Christ will come like a thief in the night. How will he find our hearts?

I’ll wrap up with a few words by St. Maximus:

“If women who have the care of a home will on certain days wash with water the garments that are soiled, should we not also make ready our souls for the Birth Day of the Lord, cleansing with our tears the stains of our conscience…And they, should they find the garments so soiled and stained, that they cannot be made clean with water alone, add to the water the softening of oil and the acrimony of soap. We likewise, should we have committed sins that are not washed away by repentance alone, let us add the oil of almsgiving and the bitterness of fasting.”

Christmas is around the corner, this beautiful time of year. Let’s not loose our opportunity to get ready. The Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph are looking for a place to lay their child. Where will Christ find His manger?

Will you offer Him the manger of your heart?

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

3808 Seymour Road

Wichita Falls, TX, 76309