Life, Death and the Nativity

Last night was a terribly sad night. I found out that a friend, whom I haven’t seen in several years, died of Leukemia. From what I understand, he fought well and graciously. Yet, in the end, he leaves behind a wife and two kids to grieve and to journey through this earthly life without him. My friend was a caring, intelligent and worshipful man and he will be missed.

News of his death came via email as I was walking out of Vespers already filled with sadness as my two youngest children made their confessions in preparation for the Feast of the Nativity. The Sacrament of Repentance is a somber moment for me and it’s magnified when my children experience it. I’m not naive about my children’s sinfulness. I know intellectually and experientially that they are distorted and corrupted by sin. Yet as their father, it breaks my heart knowing their lives will be filled with the brokenness and agony of sin. As they journey through life, they will experience the regrets and results of their own destructive actions, words and thoughts. And while I can coach and nurture them, they will still bear the scars of death and sin.

Held within a vacuum, my friend’s death and my children’s (and my own) sins can easily yield to hopelessness. But we don’t live in a vacuum. In fact, these events converge while the Feast of the Nativity looms ever closer and the words of the Apolytikon of the Forefeast of the Nativity, which we sang all weekend, continue to resound in my thoughts:

Be thou ready, O Bethlehem; for Eden hath been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha; for the Tree of life hath blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin; for her belly did appear as a noetic paradise in which is planted the divine Plant, whereof eating we shall live and not die as Adam. Verily, Christ shall be born, raising the likeness that fell of old.

I love the imagery of this hymn! The Tree of Life, which became inaccessible after the Fall, is again available to all. And this Tree has blossomed in the most unlikely place — from the womb of a young virgin in a smelly cave in Bethlehem. As we feast on this divine Plant, which is Christ, the effects of the Fall are reversed and death gives way to Life.

This is the vivid Reality in which death and sin are experienced. The final Word belongs to Life. “Verily, Christ shall be born, raising the likeness that fell of old.” We aren’t simply given a status of “righteousness” as though painted with a thin coat of whitewash. Rather, our very nature is reconstituted within the life and likeness of Christ. As St Paul states, “So if anyone is in Christ, New Creation!”

I absolutely love that! As we live in Christ, feasting upon him, who is the Tree of Life, we are being recreated into the human versions of God’s New Creation. And we confidently know that the One who began this good work of re-creation in us will bring it to completion until the Day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6). God became man so that man might become god.

This truth doesn’t diminish or assuage the grief and loss of my friend’s death nor of our own experiences of sin. In fact, death is currently allowed to coexist with Life. (Remember, even Christ’s birth was accompanied by Herod’s horrific murder of children.) But this truth does lift our sight, reminding us that there is exceedingly more beyond death and sin. And though it may be through tears and pain, we can join St Paul in proclaiming, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”

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