When something new and extraordinary happens on earth, everyone usually asks what it means, what should be done, and what to expect? The coming to earth of the Son of God—God’s appearance in the flesh—is such an extraordinary event, brethren, the likes of which there never has been nor ever will be, in comparison with which all other events mean practically nothing. So what does it mean? Why did the Son of God descend to earth? What did He bring? How should we meet Him, and what should we do?
The Church wisely answers all of these questions of unspeakable importance in one of its hymns:
“Seeing a strange childbirth, let us estrange ourselves from the world by transporting our minds to Heaven; to this end the Most High God appeared on earth a lowly man, that He might draw to the heights those who cry out to Him: Alleluia” (Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos, Kontakion 8).
Thus, the purpose of God’s coming to earth is to draw all beings to Heaven—the highest goal! The duty of those who are drawn, who really want to ascend to the heights, is to estrange themselves from the world and all its vanity—a necessary duty! According to the teachings of the Church, this is done by translating the mind and thoughts to Heaven—a means that is open to everyone, true, and the easiest!
Let us convey these truths, brethren, not so much to the mind, to which they’re more or less known already, but to the heart, which so often forgets them.
It was for this reason that the high God appeared on earth—to draw us to the heights. For exactly this reason! Otherwise, what could have drawn Him Himself from Heaven to earth? Were He seeking glory, then He would have gone to the angels; but what does He find with us? Only a manger and a cross. It was only our poverty that drew Him. And who isn’t touched by it? Is there an evil that won’t run rampant in all its forms over the poor human race? That won’t harm us? The earth feeds upon our flesh; the waters often flow with our blood; the air breathes our corruption. The higher beings have broken their union with us and have concealed themselves; the lower beings are either hostile to us, or groan under the same yoke of vanity with us. A grain of sand on the edge of the sea is more enduring than kingdoms; a passing cloud is more permanent than the fate of many lucky men. The very light of our wisdom doesn’t much differ from the light of the will-o’-the-wisps, which don’t so much illuminate the way as terrify travelers with their fall. The very beauty of our virtue is like blush on the face of a corpse.
And to help evil? To fix the damage? There are no means for this anywhere or in anyone on earth. We’ve seen wise men—they either wept or laughed at the disasters of mankind, but the disasters remained. We’ve met legislators—they’ve placed barriers against the flow of evil, but the barriers have fallen one by one, and the terrible flow is growing and expanding. We’ve rejoiced at the appearance of the friends of humanity: They illuminated the general gloom with some rays of joy, but after a brief flicker, the darkness reigned again. Everything’s been tested, and everything’s found to be in vain! And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold (Is. 63:5)—all mankind could say this about itself.
There was no one on earth who could help, but in Heaven, there was! Neither an ambassador, nor an angel, but the Lord God Himself hath appeared in the flesh, and may He draw us to the heights. He Who created us, the same came and recreated us. And since He Who came is He Who is above all, then the purpose of His coming is also above all. For us it would have been enough to be restored to our first dignity, but it wasn’t enough for Him! Having restored us, He then wants to raise us to the heights, to such perfection that we didn’t have before. And how does He raise us? Not calling only those found afar off, not guiding only those who are lost, but powerfully drawing those obstinate ones, who, without strong motivation won’t want to go to Heaven themselves.
Much was required to draw us up, and much was done! How does our Deliverer draw us? He attracts us all by the power of conscience, by His commandments and the threats of the Law, by the promises of the Gospel, by His example and that of His chosen ones, by the ministry of the Church and its Mysteries, by His Body and Blood, by the invisible grace of the Spirit. A Christian, one might say, is entirely in the bonds of God’s love from the cradle to the grave. Much has already been done by means of this attraction. How many souls are already in the heights! What human virtue is not found in Heaven! There are numerous hosts of prophets and teachers, martyrs and confessors, fasters and virgins. All are pure, all are bright, all are blessed; and all are so because the Lord of glory and blessedness was on earth; He took them with Himself to Heaven, and gave them the ability to become like Him. But in the midst of our poverty and mortality now, we don’t see and can’t see all the great and beneficial consequences of the appearance of the Son of God in the flesh. This will be fully known when the end of the world comes by all the blessed orders of God, when the time comes of the revelation of the children of God, the hour of reward and glory. Then, brethren, we shall see from what abyss we have been extracted, to what height we have been raised, from what we have been saved, and what we have been vouchsafed.
But, brethren, have we really been drawn up from the abyss and translated to the heights? Can the salvation of the world belong to us? For it belongs only to those who, feeling drawn from above, surrender to it completely and forever; and those who are drawn estrange themselves as much as possible from the world and its vanity, constantly taking care to purify themselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit. This is a necessary condition for salvation, manifested in the Son of God, without which the Lord Himself can’t and won’t be able to save us. A depraved, unrepentant heart is such a burden that even the Omnipotent One can’t raise it to the heights. Will we complain about this? Will we lament that it’s impossible to take earth with us to Heaven, for our idols to enter Paradise? But this would be to lament the impossible. This would make Heaven itself into hell. If by some miracle of mercy, some impure sinner were translated to Paradise, he wouldn’t find anything paradisiacal there. The newness of the objects and the place would astonish him for a time, but the heart and senses would soon demand their beloved food, which does not and cannot exist there. The resulting hunger and thirst would constitute a hellish torment in the midst of Paradise itself.
Terrible for sinners, but gratifying for the righteous, this truth makes itself known in strength already here, on earth. And here, that which is a pleasure for the pious, for example, praying, fasting, going to church, visiting the imprisoned, and so on, makes a sensual man feel burdened and bored. And vice versa: Where a sinner finds joy for his poor soul is usually something loathsome for the virtuous man. But such a contrast in tastes and pleasures will be revealed even more forcefully beyond the grave. There, everyone forms from themselves either Paradise—if they had the seed of Paradise within themselves on earth—or hell—if they gave place to the fire of hell while still in the body. Therefore, brethren, all the sacred writers, all the prophets and apostles instilled nothing so often and so strongly in people as how to try to purify their body and spirit. Without this, the Son of God’s descent to earth and all the means of grace won’t bring any benefit. Without this, the very blessings of Heaven won’t bring any joy to the poor soul of a sinner, just as a blind or deaf man derives no pleasure from the fact that there are beautiful places and views of nature, or mellifluous musical instruments in an inheritance left to him.
Seeing the strange childbirth of our Savior, let us estrange ourselves from the world, brethren. Let us live in it as our Lord lived, as all the holy men of God lived, not being carried away by its temptations, not being seduced by its examples, not applying our hearts to its goods, but elevating our minds above everything temporal, or, in the words of the Church, raising our minds to Heaven.
This translation of the mind and thoughts to Heaven is the very first, most useful, and reliable means of translating our entire being there. Where does our corruption usually begin? With bad thoughts. Our correction should also begin with our thoughts. Incessant thoughts about earthly and carnal things destroy us, but frequent reflection upon Heavenly and spiritual things can save us. What is easier than thought? Meanwhile, an oft-repeated thought means a lot. As our bodily vision even takes on the color of things we look at for a long time, so it is with the eyes of the heart. Begin to think more often about God and His perfection, about the soul and its destiny, about eternity, about the conscience, about the ugliness of sin and the beauty of virtue—from good thoughts will soon appear good desires; these desires, at least some of them, will turn into action; and from repeated actions is formed a habit for the good; and there, from the action of God’s grace, a new heart and a new life will appear.
As for the very image of an active ascent to the heights, it’s shown to us by the very descent of the Son of God. What brought Him down will also raise us up. He was brought down to earth by loyalty to the will of His Father: Lo, I come, He said to His Father, to do Thy will, O God (Heb. 10:7). For us, this devotion is the first and direct path to Heaven. He descended to us by His great love for the poor human race; we will ascend to Him out of our love for Him and our earthly brethren. Works of mercy bring us closer to the All-Merciful One. He appeared on earth adorned in all kinds of humility. And if we too adorn ourselves in this garment, and consider ourselves accursed sinners and place our hope in God’s mercy alone, then by this humility, we too will find the heights. What brought Him down will also raise us up! Let us only ever faithfully follow in His footsteps—and we will certainly come to Heaven, to Him, to our Savior and Lord.