December 29, 2023

1998 Pastoral Encyclical for Christmas (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos)

Pastoral Encyclical for Christmas


My beloved brethren,

The events we celebrate these days are divine and human, since God the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, takes on human flesh and comes to earth, but man is also elevated to the divine. Therefore, these days we celebrate the Birth of Christ, but also the rebirth of man; the incarnation of the Word, but also the deification of man; the coming of God the Word to earth, but also the ascension of man to heaven.

All the holy Fathers of the Church are amazed at the memory and above all at the experience of this great event, the Birth of Christ, that is why they stand ecstatic before the mystery of the incarnation of God and the salvation of man. Today, on this holy day, I would like to recall some words of the great theologian of our Church, Saint Gregory the Theologian. His discourse on Christ's birthday is timeless and fills the soul with joy and happiness. When one reads it, as billions of Christians did over sixteen centuries, one is deeply moved, spiritually moved and profoundly surprised. It is about a hymn of life and even true life.

At the beginning of his discourse, Saint Gregory the Theologian exhorts the heavens to rejoice and the earth to be glad for the heavenly God, who, however, became earthly, as he also exhorts his listeners to rejoice because of the incarnation of Christ, indeed rejoicing because of terror and joy; the terror of sin, the joy of hope.

Indeed, Adam's sin plunged us into deep despair, to the bottom of the abyss, since there was no possibility of salvation and redemption, due to the loss of our communion with God. However, the incarnation of Christ brought the hope of life. Thus, Christ is our hope, our joy and our life. Without the incarnate Christ nothing is pleasant in life. Everything is filled with the corpses of death. Man is not satisfied with anything, outside of Christ.

However, the great theologian of the Church, the soaring eagle of theology, Saint Gregory the Theologian, does not stop at the simple realization of the great event of the incarnation of Christ, but proceeds to the exhortation for the personal elevation of man. With a beautiful and apt theological discourse, he writes: "For I must suffer the good reversal", that is, we too must undergo the good reversal, to ascend spiritually, because the purpose of Christ's incarnation is "that we may return to God". Our elevation, the good reversal, is connected with repentance, the return to God, the love for Him, which is expressed through prayer and obedience to His will. It is about the spiritual change associated with the healing and purification of all psychic and physical energies. And the celebratory events of these days reflect our spiritual change.

It is known, however, that fallen human nature has a tendency towards evil and sin, and in fact it easily turns all the great Christological and salvific events into flat and frivolous celebrations, through which the passions are satisfied. We could talk about the religionization of these world-saving events. This deals with the fallen state of the first-formed and their descendants, who forsook God, the true life, and created religions to worship false gods. Thus, from living communication with God they reached religionization.

Saint Gregory the Theologian was aware of this tempting situation, which is the ultimate pinnacle of senselessness, which is why he takes a turn in his discourse and he orders his listeners not to celebrate the Birth of Christ with public festivals, but in a divine way, not in a worldly but transcendent way. He also exhorts them with his apt words: "Therefore let us keep the feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master's; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of recreation." How many of the people do not fall into the temptation, instead of celebrating the Lord, that is, the Master Christ, celebrate themselves, and instead of celebrating Christmas as a healing event, celebrate it as spiritually sick people. The sick man makes all the manifestations of life sick, even these events of his salvation. It also makes a special impression on me that Saint Gregory the Theologian connects the celebration of the Nativity of Christ with healing, since Christ with His incarnation became the greatest and strongest medicine that cures the spiritual illness of man.

My beloved brethren,

The incarnate Son and Word of God is the hope of our life, especially after the spiritual death that happened to Adam and which we also inherited, it is the medicine of our nature. We cannot find hope and healing anywhere else. Satisfying the senses and reason offers no hope. The challenges offered by the possibilities of this life do not satisfy our spiritual quest and do not heal our deeply wounded soul. Man was created in the image and likeness of God and will never be satisfied unless he finds his goal, which is Christ. Therefore, these days let's not celebrate "as our own, but as belonging to Him." He, that is, Christ, is truly ours, our Savior, who can remove gloom, despondency, despair from the soul and instill hope. This incarnate Son and Word of God is our hope and healing. May infinite mercy be upon you all.

With paternal prayers and blessings

† HEROTHEOS of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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