Serbian True Orthodox Church
Nativity Encyclical 2015
Hierarchical Council of the STOC
Under the Presidency of His Grace Akakije
Bishop of Uteshiteljevo
To All the Faithful Children of St. Sava’s Church
We greet you on the great and joyous feast of the birth of Christ:
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
“Great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifested in the flesh…”
1 Tim 3:16
On the day of Christ’s birth, Heaven and Earth, God and Man united into one. Heaven came down to Earth, and Earth became Heaven, because on it appeared God made flesh. In the Divine Child of Bethlehem, human nature and the divine united, for He truly received our flesh and blood, uniting Himself in the most intimate way with human nature, and accordingly, uniting the human race with the Divinity. St. Gregory the Theologian says of Man, “He is the only being that stands apart from all creation; the only one which can become a god.” That possibility was granted us with this very “mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16), that is, the incarnation of the Son of God. In the service books of the Church, the Most Holy Mother of God is very often called the wellspring of our divinization: “Through her we have been deified.”
Great is this mystery, and as its memory and celebration is so important, our caring mother the holy Church has ordained a long preparation for it in the form of a forty-day fast. Why is a fast necessary in order to prepare to meet Christmas? It is necessary because the act of birth, that is, the incarnation of the Son of God is the greatest mystery for the salvation of the world. This mystery cannot be understood by the fleshly mind, which can hardly grasp earthly things, much less heavenly. Impure hearts defiled by passions, bound by everything earthly, incapable of comprehending anything heavenly, cannot receive such a mystery. In order to receive this divine, most holy mystery which transcends the mind, we must especially prepare and cleanse the mind and heart with a forty-day fast. Thus, with the help of a bodily and spiritual fast, we free the mind of the vain thoughts of everyday life. We cleanse the feelings, weaken and humble the crudeness of our body. In this way, reborn and prepared spiritually, we can look with the eyes of our mind upon “the great mystery of godliness,” how the Word, the Son of God Jesus Christ, became flesh, how the Theotokos bore Him, yet remained a virgin, how a manger became a cradle in which lay the uncontainable Christ God.
This feastday is also so great because with it God fulfilled His greatest promise to man about the coming Savior of the world, for Whom, according to the testimony of the Bible, we waited over five thousand years. Mankind prepared for the Savior’s birth from the time of Adam. Having received a punishment because of his transgression, Man, embodied in Adam, also received a promise of the great event which would happen, “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4), when the seed of a woman, that is the descendant of a woman, “would bruise the head of the serpent” (1 Gen. 3:15), the devil-tempter, and Man would recover Paradise which he had lost.
It is an understatement to say that the event of the birth of the Child of Bethlehem is great or even most great. For the human race, it is something which supersedes our limited comprehension, all our imaginings of earthly or even heavenly dimensions. Do we who celebrate the Birth of Christ truly realize the immeasurable magnitude of this event?
On that night, only a few came to worship at the manger in which lay “the little Child, the Eternal God” (Kontakion of the Nativity). They were simple, humble shepherds who had been called by angelic singing, and the oriental wise men who had been led from afar by the marvelous guiding star. All the rest of mankind slept a deep sleep, not knowing and not suspecting what had happened that night. How many today will hearken to the angelic song of the church bells which announce this great Christmas feast? How many will come to the church to God’s service and adore the Divine Bethlehem Child? How many will have offered Him the forty-day fast of cleansing and preparationas a gift, and through the communion of the Holy Mysteries, most intimately participate in “the great mystery of godliness,” the manifestation of God in the flesh, Who gives Himself to us in the form of life-giving, mystical food and drink? “For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). “Most assuredly, I say unto you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you”(John 6:53). With the birth of Christ, we have been deemed worthy of something of which even the angels were not deemed worthy: deification through the communion of the Heavenly Bread and the Chalice of Life. The Holy Eucharist contains all the fullness of the celebration of Christ’s birth, for Holy Communion is the most intimate act of union with Him “Who for our sakes and for our salvation descended from the heavens and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man” (Nicene Creed).
Unfortunately, many superficial Christians, and even more zealous believers, do not know this very well, or because of so many worldly concerns often forget the grandeur and meaning of this most mystical feast. Often Christmas is awaited and celebrated like some kind of warm, joyous, family holiday with all the richness of national traditions. It is this, and should remain so, but we cannot reduce this mystical holiday to merely nice, touching traditions which include going to church decorated for the festive Liturgy with the Badnjak (oak, the Serbian Christmas tree) and straw. We must strive with all our hearts to perceive Christ’s Nativity as a holiday overflowing with spiritual riches and lofty mysteries of the faith which are revealed in it. In the first place is the mystery of the union of human nature with the divine, the mystery of our deification.
Many think that the meaning of Christian life is attaining spiritual perfection, the goal of which is to become good, doers of good works, and virtuous Christians. According to the Gospel, however, the Traditions of the Church and the Holy Fathers, this is not the goal of our life, but only the means of attaining it. This means should not become the goal in and of itself, and through this mistaken approach we lose or neglect the true goal for which our Creator made man. Thus, let us not neglect the fulfillment of a single Christian good deed, but let us be careful to keep our main goal in sight. This final goal is, as we have said, deification, the uniting of man with God. Having been given the image of God, man is called by God Himself to gain His likeness, to attain this deification. The Creator, God by nature, calls man to become god by grace. God granted man gifts according to His image, so that man could be lifted to endless heights, so that with the help of those gifts he could become like his God and Maker.
Thus, the goal of our life is to become gods by grace. Not by nature, because only God is such by nature, but by grace. Even the Old Testament righteous men were not deemed worthy of this goal, nor were the angels. This is the most marvelous and mysterious privilege for us who came into the world after the birth of Christ, and for this very reason we must not neglect this awesome and supremely binding privilege for any temporal reason. Flee from sin, draw near to God and become divine through the fulfilling of Christian virtues. “Looking upon the immortal gift of Christ, do always the immortal works in Christ: pure faith and frequent prayer, having love for and hope in Him, with a pure conscience before God and man, fasting and vigil, sleeping on the ground, truth in everything, bodily purity and spiritual restraint, preserving the mind of holy baptism, enlightened by God, with which we renounced Satan and all of his works. You must always love repentance and the confession of your sins, with weeping over them. Compunction, humility, righteousness, preaching, correction of life, hatred of sin, not drunkenness, not fornication, but on the contrary, a pure life such as is pleasing in God’s eyes” (Žiča sermon of St. Sava). As the pinnacle of life in God, commune of the holy and life-giving Body and Blood of Christ, to the remission of sins and union with Christ. Through Holy Communion we do not only unite with Him, but also with each other. “For we, though many, are one bread and one body, for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). Thus united in this single Chalice of salvation, giving ourselves, each other, and our entire lives to God, we celebrate the day of Christ’s birth, in that, after a forty day preparation, we consciously, with the help of faith, truly receive within ourselves through Holy Communion the Child of Bethlehem, “the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). In this way, with the eyes of faith, we will see and truly experience “the great mystery of godliness.” We can worship in spirit Him Who lies in the Bethlehem manger, that is, on the altar of the church, “the little Child – God Who has appeared in the flesh” in the form of bread and wine laid on the Holy Altar of which we commune. Receiving Him within ourselves, we experience the greatest spiritual joy, “the great mystery of godliness” and sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men!” (Luke 2:14)
In this divine joy, we wish all the faithful children of St. Sava’s Serbian Church happiness in the coming year of 2016, with faith and hope that it will be blessed, and that it will bring a spiritual rebirth in every human soul and in our much suffering people as a whole, that “Serbs become godly, are at peace with each other, and multiply” (St. Nicholas Velimirovich). This spiritual rebirth is possible only through true repentance and our communion in the mystery of the Body of Christ, in which acts the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth and Love. This saving, grace-filled action is only possible in the True Church of Christ. May the Lord born of the Virgin thus bless our holy battle for the rebirth and progress of the true Church of our fatherland, which like the Divine Child of Bethlehem is now in the humble manger of catacomb service to God and the Serbian nation.
With such prayerful wishes, calling for the blessing of God on all of you, we once more greet you with St. Sava’s Nativity Greeting:
The peace of God be with you! Christ is born!
Uteshiteljevo, Holy Nativity 2015
Your prayerful intercessors before the Divine Child of Bethlehem
+Akakije, Bishop of Uteshiteljevo
+Nektarije, Bishop of Shumadia