of the Most Reverend
John Michael Botean
Bishop of the Eparchy of St. George in Canton
Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down – at your Presence the mountains would melt, as fire sets brushwood alight, as fire causes water to boil – to make known your name to your enemies, and make the nations tremble at your Presence, working unexpected miracles, such as no one has ever heard of before. (Isaiah 64:1-4)
The night lengthens and its shadows grow colder. Winter is upon us, and everything that makes up our day-to-day existence becomes just a little harder and more expensive to accomplish. Homes have to be heated and snow removed. Errands are a bit more stressful and inconvenient. Children are stuck indoors, and the elderly find leaving the house not only uncomfortable but treacherous, especially when ice covers the sidewalk. We shiver more, our bones ache, and life itself seems to be draining away, seeping through some crack in the universe. Our spirits sink a little…
Christmas preparations are a helpful distraction from the season’s difficulties: there are gifts to shop for, cards to send, and cookies to bake. The house has to be decorated, and someone has to plan the Christmas menu. If we are even a little bit pious by nature or inclination, there is also the matter of taking the time for personal prayer and reflection, to make our Christmas confession, and to attend some of the extra church services the season brings upon us. Christmas is so much work! In the house and in our hearts, it is as if everything has to be just right…
If we are sustained by anything in our toleration of winter’s difficulties, it is by the knowledge that the days will inevitably lengthen and sunshine will once more cover the green land with warmth and life. We’ve gotten through it before. It’s just a matter of holding on until then…
This winter is a bit more wintry for many of us. The job is gone, or our hours have been cut back. Pension savings have evaporated; needed credit is nowhere to be found. Perhaps the company that paid our salary or our pension no longer even exists. Food prices are up, up, up, and going higher, while at the same time we have to be sure to turn the thermostat lower and lower. Can we afford to take our medicine? Or even see a doctor? God help us if we become sick…
Even if our personal lives are not as insecure, anxious, inconvenient or uncomfortable as this, we live in an interconnected, globalized world in which a loose thread anywhere threatens the whole fabric. Whether across the globe or across the street, the suffering of the other affects us, even when that other is unknown to us. Perhaps we can ignore the suffering of the unemployed, the homeless, the persecuted and tyrannized, the hungry and the sick – but for how long? So goes the famous essay: No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne, Meditation XVII)
To say nothing of the unspeakable, homicidal war on the unborn that rages in our country and around the world, the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also go on and on, along with so many other conflicts, even if these do not make the news as they might or even provoke much interest anymore (except for those who are killing and dying in them). At a current cost of $16 billion per month, the war in Iraq makes the auto industry bailout look like lunch money. Violence at the level of war and abortion is very, very expensive; it is good for those whose interests are upheld by massive violence and war to keep this kind of thing out of the news and thus out of the minds of the people who (with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren) are paying these bills. Few protest, and even among Christians (bishops, priests, laity) the prevailing „wisdom” seems to want us to „go along to get along” with whoever has the spotlight now, whoever is in a position to make politics as usual seem like „change.” After all this „war on terror,” do we feel safer? It seems we are more terrified than ever, especially of our born and unborn children…
It is not too difficult to understand those who cannot believe in the existence of a God who is said to have created this world, in which suffering of one kind or another impinges upon everyone’s life, even the life of the most innocent and powerless. We who believe that there is a God cannot but find ourselves trying to understand the existence of so much evil in a world fashioned by the One we call Love (cf. 1 John 4:8). Trying to account for our beliefs to those around us, do we not feel sometimes that we are making excuses for the Almighty? Unless our hearts are made of stone, do we not want to cry out sometimes with the prophet Isaiah, „God, why don’t you tear open the sky and come down and fix things? You are the all-powerful one; when are You going to make your presence felt, especially to the powerful of this world, to our enemies, to all those who cause us trouble?” But it seems heaven is silent…
* * *
Make ready, Bethlehem; and you, Eden, open your gates; for He Who Is shall become what He had not been…(from vespers on December 20)
Beloved brothers and sisters,
It has become conventional courtesy in our multicultural age to replace Christian language and terminology with language that reflects the reality that the Christian community is only one part of a very large and diverse world. For instance, if we do not know the religion, if any, of the person we are speaking to, we are nowadays likely to proffer a lowest-common-denominator „Happy Holidays” instead of the more religious „Merry Christmas” as a greeting during this time of year. After all, it is not just Christians who are celebrating; many faiths celebrate a diverse collection of holidays at about the same time at the end of every year. As a matter of sensitivity to others’ beliefs and cultures, our acknowledgement of non-Christians is not a negative development in American society, even if we do find the diminishing influence of Christian values in it somewhat disconcerting.
There is an example of this diminishing influence that is uniquely telling: more and more Christians, including clergy and academic theologians, forgo the expressions „B.C.” („Before Christ”) and „A.D.” (Anno Domini – „[In] the Year of Our Lord) in favor of „C.E.” („Common Era”) and „B.C.E.” („Before the Common Era”). Undoubtedly, this is motivated by the kind of sensitivity I mentioned earlier, but I have come to wonder at the same time whether or not it also represents a kind of seismic shift in the foundations of our lives as Church. Have we Christians begun to cease reckoning time and history on the basis of the birth of Jesus?
Not that Christians always divided history into „B.C.” and „A.D.” This calendar system did not become established until the tenth or eleventh century, and it is, moreover, based on an erroneous calculation of the year of Jesus’ birth in the first place. It has become the „Common Era” worldwide on the strength of European colonial power for the last half-millennium, and only secondarily (if that) out of Christian piety. It is, perhaps, a good thing that we Christians as a people are trying to become a bit more modest, or perhaps have become a little more ambivalent and not a little queasy about the legacy of violence and oppression that we Christians (like every other religion and powerful culture in history) have left. As I have said, there are plenty of good reasons for this change in language.
After all, have we not long since ignored what Jesus taught? What is the point of pretending that his birth is the center of history, if his teaching, particularly his teaching of non-violent, active love of friends and enemies, fails to occupy a central place in our lives, both individually or communally? In such a case, it seems almost blasphemous to refer to our bloody age as „a year of the Lord.”
And yet, the point that I am trying to make is that something definitive, irrevocable, and extraordinary did happen on that night in Bethlehem. Human history is divided into time „before Christ” and time since his coming, and, we believe, history itself will come to an end with his second coming. If I may stretch the meaning of the words a bit, we might even say that God’s „history” underwent a unique and extraordinary change on that night. As our liturgy puts it, „He Who Is has become what He was not.” The Incarnation, the mystery of the Divine taking upon itself human nature, is the critical
gravitational point upon which the entire human story is bent, as time and light themselves are bent by the immense gravity of a black hole. By becoming human, the Creator has become a participant in creation; time and history are no longer merely God’s invention, they have become part of the Divine milieu itself.
Every traditional icon of Jesus Christ possesses several unique elements. One of them is the cross that is seen in the halo around his head. Within that cross are two Greek words, „ο ων,” which mean „He Who Is,” or „The Existing One.” In Exodus 3:14, we read of God telling Moses from the burning bush, in response to Moses’ inquiry, that his name is „I am who (or ‘that’) I am.” Thus, the inscription within the cross in the icon of Christ is there in order to explicitly identify the Crucified One with the One who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai.
As if this were not enough for our lifetime’s contemplation, we must take into account that the Person in whom this event takes place had something to say in his own lifetime. His was not, of course, a life of idle partying or scraping together some kind of mere survival, only to leave the world in as sorry a state as he found it. In Jesus, the very Source of the universe acquires a human tongue with which to speak and a concrete moment in time and space in which to deliver his message. In Jesus, we recognize that the Word that said „Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) is the same Word that said „Love your enemies” (Luke 6:27). In Jesus, we learn that the very destiny intended by God for each human life is to become divine.
In Bethlehem, the sky did not rip open and the hills did not melt, as Isaiah supposed they would when the Divine Presence appeared in the human world. It was an „unexpected miracle” when God thus made his name known to his enemies – us sinners – in the cry of an infant lying in a manger. In making his name known, and specifically in making his name known as Love, God, in Jesus, brought about the end of enmity, first of all by making we, who had been God’s enemies, into his friends by the forgiveness of our sins (Romans 5:10). However, in becoming human God also let us know that fear is not going to be conquered, the economy fixed, politics and statecraft reformed, the health system redesigned, or all the „winters of our discontent” brought to an end by mere supernatural „theatrical effects.”
Rather, by choosing the womb of a virgin and a manger of beasts as his route into history, God has proposed another plan for our salvation, through means consistent with God’s nature as Love and consistent with the fulfillment of our human destiny of becoming by grace what God is by nature, i.e., love. According to this plan, evil is to be confronted – and death conquered – in the unfolding of each of our lives to the degree that we open our hearts to this Presence and allow our lives to be refashioned by its gentle radiance. We have been invited into a partnership with God for the salvation of the world, while in the process being saved ourselves from all that the world does, or tries to do, to crush us.
It is no wonder that „the nations” should tremble at this Presence (Isaiah 64:2), since nations – and indeed all the structures of civil and economic life in our fallen world – owe their existence to fear and enmity. But to those who know neither fear nor enmity, nations are at best irrelevant as to how Christians are called to respond to the evil around them. At worst, nations can be violently destructive in their impotent, diabolical rage against those who have found salvation and protection in the Presence of God. It is the martyr whom the Church calls „conqueror,” not „loser,” in his or her conflict with the world and its leaders. The Church, in her liturgy, over and over again names martyrs as those in whom sanctity, the proof of the reality of salvation in Christ, is most evident.
It is this potential to attract the destructive violence of an unredeemed world that perhaps accounts for the fact that so few (or so it would seem) of those who profess the name of Jesus want to have anything to do with the message of Jesus in its radical, revolutionary fullness. We Christians continue to live with the same old fears that have haunted humanity from the beginning; we have ceased to reckon our history from the perspective of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is no longer the unique, decisive moment in human history for us and for the world, the moment in which everything changed once and for all. Our witness to hope and against fear has faltered. As a consequence, the rest of humanity is able to put Jesus on the shelf alongside other gods and heroes in its pantheon of powerless deities. And Christmas becomes just another of the „happy holidays” among all the others observed around the world.
Perhaps, however, Christmas can be different, and perhaps we can make it so. We can make the difference of Christmas apparent to the world around us, to those whose lives touch ours. In order to do this, we do not have to join the strident chorus of voices that demand that Christmas and the Church be restored to the place of privilege and prestige that it may have had in American culture at one time. Still less are we under a divine calling to spend like crazy, as if the nation’s economic recovery depended on whether or not we buy that flat-screen TV for Christmas. Nor does it do any good to lament the diminishing influence of Christian values in society, as if it were society’s fault that the Gospel has less and less of a place in it.
On the contrary, it seems to me more of the blame for that can be can be found in the fact that we, who know that we are called to become Love, cannot even cease waging war, practicing torture, aborting our children at about the same rate as non-believers, and committing the myriads of acts of violence and cruelty that spring from our own fears and enmities. The fact that we attempt to justify it in the name of Jesus only serves to render him less credible to people everywhere.
For the Christian community, that is, the Church, to make a difference and to create a space for the Gospel in the society in which it lives requires (in addition to divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, of course) that each unique and individual member of the Body of Christ make a difference by witnessing to the faith he or she has. We can give this witness, or testimony, through what we say, but it is more effective we testify through the example of our own lives. We make a difference in the micro-societies of our personal existences by having a ready answer for those who ask us to account for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15), but to do that we have to have hope in the first place. And for us to have hope, we must first have faith, which is „the substance of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Love, the other of the „three things that last” (1 Corinthians 13:13) cannot be built but upon the foundation of hope inspired by faith.
Now, in writing a letter to the faithful for whom he has spiritual responsibility, it is all to easy for a bishop or pastor to make the argument sound like „this is what you are doing that you are not supposed to do, so stop doing it; this is what you are supposed do that you’re not doing, so get busy and do it.” You and I have already heard enough homilies like that (and I suppose I have preached enough of them myself) to realize that this kind of message only carries so much water. I mention this simply to point out that what I am attempting to do in this letter is not complain about the quality of Christian life and discipleship in our diocese. Still less am I proposing that I, in my wisdom, have the solution to all your problems – especially the ones brought upon us by the current economic, cultural, and political situations we face in America. Life is too short and too full of trouble for anyone to be so unserious. However, what I write, I write as someone who, like you, struggles with existence in his own way, with the unique elements of providence that have been given him in his own particular strengths and weaknesses, wants and gifts – what those who have little faith call good or bad „luck.”
From my particular perspective, I have found that what makes it hard to become the loving person I know God wants me to be has less to do with the changes that I succeed or not in making to my personality, and much more to do with the quality of my faith. Faith is not the simplest of the virtues to acquire, despite being the simplest of them all once one has truly acquired it. Believing is hard work in a postmodern world – but that will have to be the subject of another letter. For purposes of this letter, all I want to say is that God also knows how hard it is for us to believe, and that is why he has made himself as approachable as a tiny, defenseless infant. I struggle, as you do, as all people must, to believe and to deepen the virtue of faith within me. By becoming what he was not, He Who Is has stepped in alongside us in this struggle. It is God who, in the Holy Spirit, makes faith possible (1 Corinthians 12:3).
So perhaps we, as a diocese and as the Romanian Catholic Church, can begin to make a difference by, first of all, praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit this Christmas, through whom each of us can find our own way to Bethlehem and to the New Eden, the new starting point of our personal and communal history – in a cave, in a manger, in the face of a baby who is the great „I Am,” „He Who Is.” It will not make the winter go away tomorrow, create jobs, or bring about instant justice in the world. These are the things we do not see, but Hope for because of the Faith which has the power to make us Love.
It makes no difference to the Christian whether the world sees in the infant Jesus the source of all that is. It makes no difference to the Christian whether the world reckons its history from the unexpected miracle of His birth. It makes all the difference in – and to – the world that you do, however. To this end, may the Divine Presence be yours this Christmas Day.
With the assurance of my prayers, my best wishes, and my blessing for you and all your loved ones this holy day, I remain Your brother in the Lord Jesus,
(Most Reverend) John Michael Botean
A sinner, and bishop of the
Eparchy of St. George in Canton
 In this regard, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you make the effort to read the Holy Father’s encyclical of November 30, 2007, Spe salvi. In it, Pope Benedict XVI makes an inspiring and complete presentation of the idea that we are „saved in hope” (Romans 8:4). If you cannot otherwise find a copy of this encyclical, it is available here.