The Church recently celebrated the 29th day of the Coptic month of Paopi. The 29th day of certain months in the Coptic calendar is very special, because the Church, in Her wisdom, commemorates the Feasts of the Annunciation, Nativity, and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on these days. We have this commemoration on the 29th of every Coptic month with the exception of two months, Tuba and Meshir.
When we think about these three great feasts–the Annunciation, Nativity, and Resurrection–we see in them God’s divine plan for our salvation. In the Annunciation, we celebrate how God sent the Archangel Gabriel to the Holy Virgin Mary to announce that the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, would take flesh from her. The Archangel Gabriel affirmed to the Holy Virgin Mary that the One born of her “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). In the Feast of the Nativity, we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the coming of the Messiah to save His people. Finally, in the Feast of the Resurrection, we celebrate our Lord’s victory over death and its power over us through His life-giving death and resurrection. All of these feasts commemorate events that were part of God’s divine plan of salvation for us.
How was it possible for God to take flesh, submit to death, and raise Himself from the dead? These events are wondrous and above all knowledge. They are above human understanding and above the understanding of the angels in heaven. And though we can never truly understand these wondrous events, we are recipients of divine grace through them. St. Paul teaches us in Ephesians 4: “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” (Ephesians 4:7-8) All of us today have a measure of grace from Christ. What, then, is left?
What is left is for us to strive towards a perfect Christian life. The grace God has given us through His plan of salvation is a divine gift. But what purpose does this divine gift have if it is not converted into a life that is pleasing to God?
Our Church, in Her wisdom, gives us practical instructions for living this perfect Christian life every morning. In the First Hour of the Agpeya, we read this passage from Ephesians 4: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). This is the plan of the Christian life that should be our response to the divine gift of grace God has given us.
The first item in this plan of perfect Christian life is love. When St. Paul introduces himself as the “prisoner of the Lord,” he is expressing his steadfast love for our Lord Jesus Christ. He would rather be a “prisoner of the Lord” than a free man living with the honor of the rulers of this world. This steadfast love for our Lord Jesus Christ leads to the development of other virtues, as St. Jerome said, “From love is born all that is good.” When we love our Lord Jesus Christ, this love will naturally flow to those around us. We see this principle in a famous meditation on the Cross where the vertical beam represents our love for God and the horizontal beam represents our love for one another.
The second item in this plan is lowliness or humility. When we think of these three great feasts, we see our Lord’s unfathomable humility in all of them. In the Feasts of the Annunciation and Nativity, for example, we see how our Lord, Who is seated upon the Cherubim and worshipped by the Seraphim, condescended and assumed human flesh in order to save us. What can be more humble than this reality of the Omnipotent God taking the weak form of His own creation for their salvation? The Lord’s humility did not stop at His incarnation and birth, but rather, continued throughout His ministry on earth. He gave us the perfect example of humility and asked us to follow this example in Matthew 11 when He said, “Learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” St. John Chrysostom focused on these words “lowly in heart” when he teaches us that we cannot be humble simply in our words or external deeds. Rather, we must be humble from within and “lowly in heart.” Also, humility cannot be manifested to some people and not others. True humility from the heart is universal and manifested to everyone, whether a friend or enemy, whether great or small.
The third item in this plan of perfect Christian life is gentleness. You will remember that gentleness is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit described by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22. Notice in the passage from Matthew 11 above that gentleness and humility accompany each other: “Learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” A person who is full of pride oftentimes exalts himself over others in an abusive way. This maltreatment of others comes from lack of humility and self-pride. However, when a person is truly “lowly in heart,” he sees himself as less than everyone around him. He therefore treats everyone gently, acknowledging they are greater than him. As with many virtues, there are various degrees of gentleness. The first degree is when a person does not repay evil with evil, as St. Paul said, “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men” (Romans 12:17). However, although someone may have good self-control in not repaying evil for evil in word or deed, he may nonetheless lose his inner peace. This is the second degree of gentleness: to avoid repaying evil for evil while maintaining inner peace. Finally, the third degree of gentleness is when a person avoids repaying evil for evil, maintains inner peace, and is genuinely grieved that he caused the other person to sin.
The fourth item in this plan is patience. Christians who learn the virtues of humility and faith learn not to be afraid of evil and suffering. The virtue of patience, on the other hand, teaches us how to deal with evil and suffering when we are afflicted. St. Cyril of Alexandria taught us that “patience is the supplier and winner of all good to us.” ((St. Cyril of Alexandria. Homily on the Nurse of Hope: Patience in Tribulations.)) Patience is necessary in light of inevitable tribulation, as the Holy Scriptures teach us: “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for tribulation. Set your heart aright and be steadfast and endure” (Sirach 2:1). Thus, it is for us, through faith and humility, not to fear tribulation and, through patience, to endure tribulation with steadfast hope in our Lord and His ability to deliver us. Patience is concerned not only with enduring tribulation, but also waiting for the Lord to deliver us at the right time. We see an example of this in God’s divine plan for us. St. Paul teaches us that Christ was incarnate in the “fullness of the time,” which means He came in the perfect time for our salvation (Galatians 4:4). Pope Alexander of Alexandria teaches us this is what was meant by the Lord when He said, “I have held My peace a long time, I have been still and restrained Myself. Now I will cry like a woman in labor, I will pant and gasp at once” (Isaiah 42:14). Thus, we must be patient in our lives, enduring all things and waiting for the Lord to deliver us at the right time.
The fifth item in this plan of perfect Christian life is maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We are all united together through the Church with Christ as the head. As one Orthodox ascetic said, “The Church is Christ, His Body living in history.” ((Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry (Crestwood, New York: SVS Press, 1984), 20-21.)) Just as the early Christian communities gathered around the bishop and/or presbyter to celebrate the Eucharist, we are likewise held together by the Mystery of the Eucharist in our own parish churches. St. Paul teaches us, “We who are men are one loaf, one body, because we all partake from the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:6). The Eucharist is one of the oldest symbols of unity in the Church. In the Didache, for example, we find the following prayer: “As this broken bread was once scattered upon the mountains and was then brought together and became one, so may Thy people be gathered from the four corners of the earth into Thy Kingdom.” This is an amazing mystery that we celebrate in every Divine Liturgy. Through the Mystery of the Eucharist, we are bound together in the unity of the Spirit. Thus, our unity is clear, but how do we preserve it? We preserve it through the “bond of peace,” which is participation in the Mysteries of the Church, prayer, reconciling with one another, and the exercise of virtues.
God has bestowed upon us a divine gift of grace through His incarnation, birth, and resurrection from the dead. Let us respond by striving to attain the perfect Christian life. It is never too late to begin, for God will strengthen us along the way. St. John Cassian tells us that “God, when He sees in us some beginnings of a good will, at once enlightens it and strengthens it and urges it on towards salvation, increasing that which He Himself implanted or which He sees to have arisen from our own efforts.” ((St. John Cassian, Conferences, No. 13:9. NPNF XI, 427.))
May God remember the peace of the One, Only, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and preserve the lives of our honored father, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III and his partner in the apostolic ministry, our bishop, His Grace Bishop Serapion. May He grant us the strength and wisdom to strive towards the perfect Christian life that we may live for Him and the glory of His Name, Amen.