What shall we offer You, O Christ,
Who, for the sake of the cosmos
entered Your creation as a human?
Every creature made by You offers thanksgiving:
The angels offer a hymn;
The heavens offer a star;
The magi offer gifts;
The shepherds offer their wonder;
The earth offers a cave in which to be born;
The wilderness offers a manger;
And we offer you a Virgin Mother!
O pre-eternal God, grant us love and mercy!
– from the Vespers of the Nativity
Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Incarnate Lord,
From the very first time Christians celebrated the Feast of Christ’s en-fleshment, this season has been marked with the theme of giving. God initiates with a Gift by offering Himself to us and to the whole of creation. We are called to respond to His Gift in thanksgiving, as the words of the hymn affirm.
Though she is the very best that we humans can give, our gift to God is not limited to offering Him a Virgin Mother “whose womb was more spacious than the heavens.” Our gift to God must go further.
In the sacred narratives of the Old and New Testaments we see that ever since He spoke to His servants, our forebears in the faith, God made it crystal clear what the nature of our gift giving was to be.
Of course, the Hebrews understood from God Himself that they were to offer young bulls, sheep, turtle-doves, pigeons, grain, wine and incense in their daily sacrifices. This was the basic list of liturgical oblation, but it was not an exhaustive list. The list was not meant to stop there. The items on this list were representative. They were meant to be symbolic of so much more. How easy it was to do nothing more than to offer animals, vegetables and minerals to God.
How easy it is today to offer God little more than a portion of our livelihood. Many of us even offer our time and talents to the Church. And even if our treasure, time and talents are given to God to a truly sacrificial degree — lots of money for the parish; lots of time spent at church doing lots of tasks and chores for the edification of our worshipping community — even if all we give in these areas is truly a tithe of our lives, we must not forget the message of God to His people of old who also gave similarly:
“I desire tender mercy and loving-kindness, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6 and Matthew 9:13; 12:7) Another translation reads: “Faithful love is what pleases me, not burnt offerings.”
But what is meant by tender mercy, loving-kindness and faithful love? Simply this: God prefers the inward quality of genuine compassion rather than the outward gifts specified in the performance of the Law. (Remember that the complex and detailed sacrificial system was part of the Law given at Sinai.) God prefers that His people give Him so much more than burnt offerings. Or time. Or talent. Or treasure.
“Let justice flow like water, let uprightness be a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:24) “Learn to do good, search for justice, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow…” (Isaiah 1:17)
The context of God’s greater desire for loving-kindness rather than sacrifices (which , again, were exactly according the Law He gave) is that His people had continually engaged in a litany of wrongdoings which are listed by Hosea: unfaithfulness to God, perjury, lying, murder, theft, adultery, violence and bloodshed. (4:1-2) Because of this, God felt that their liturgical offerings were not only empty and tainted with hypocrisy. but to Him, their gifts were hateful, stinking abominations. (Isaiah 1:7 and Amos 5:21-22)
This is by no means to say that the time and talents and treasures we give to God in the church are of the same nature as those criticized in Isaiah and Hosea. I know of very few individuals who would fit the description of the people who were condemned in the words of the prophets.
But the question remains: “What can we offer You, O Christ…?”
God Himself tells us very plainly that our offering, our gift, our oblation, our sacrifice is this: we are to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and sojourner, the poorly-clothed, the sick and the captive. (Matthew 25:31-46) Add to this care for the orphan, the widow, the poor and the weak (Amos 4:1) and you have a detailed gift list which God lays before us. We would do well to be checking this list daily and checking it twice.
This Advent and Nativity season has provided us with two opportunities to give back to God something in response to all His wonderful and inexpressible gifts of tender mercy, loving-kindness and faithful love to us.
Fr. Victor Sokolov is dying of cancer — his remaining days are very few — and his family will be in need of support when he dies. Parishes and individual parishioners from throughout our diocese have given to the Sokolov Family Fund which was set up by the Parish Council of Holy Trinity Cathedral — set up with the encouragement and blessing of the Church’s hierarchy.
Our own Nikolette Harris is also fighting for her life. This is the third time she has battled with leukemia during the space of her brief 12 years. Her family and friends have set up a special fund for her. We collected $1,250 for her from among the faithful of the Pan-Orthodox Community of Portland on the Feast of St. Nicholas. Undoubtedly more can be done.
There are many other very important opportunities for each of us to take advantage of at this season — and to take advantage of throughout our lives. All are worthy of our attention and action.
I would encourage you to join Daria, Kyrion and me in offering to Christ the gift of our own tender mercy, loving-kindness and faithful love to those “least of the brethren” whom God has placed before us and with whom He identifies and who he says are actually Himself. “You do it to Me.”
Christ is Born!
— Fr. George