“Prepare, O Bethlehem ... for the Tree of Life will blossom forth from the Virgin in the cave. Her womb appeared as a spiritual paradise, in which was the divine garden. Eating of it, we will live... Christ shall be born to raise the image that fell of old” (Troparion [hymn] of Preparation for the Nativity of Christ). This is how the Holy Church prepares us for the Feast of the Nativity. Here, brothers and sisters, while we were dashing in cars from one store to another, when we were preparing a feast in our homes, the Holy Church, still in a whisper, was revealing the mystery: “Prepare, O Bethlehem…”
How did Bethlehem prepare? With a cave—with the kind of cave into which cattle were driven. “Prepare, O Bethlehem...” and Bethlehem prepared. What did it prepare for? What was happening there in Bethlehem? In Bethlehem, in a stable for cattle, a great world-wide mystery was being performed. Here, as the Holy Church has told us, in this cave appeared a paradise in which grew the New Testament Tree of Life. Adam had life, because in paradise stood the Tree of Life, the Old Testament one from which he was nourished. And from the strength given in this nourishment, Adam had communion with God. This was an unspeakable joy which Adam lost when the gates of paradise were closed, and the Tree of Life was lost. But God the Creator, pitying Adam, granted a prophecy that the Tree of Life would be restored. And this Tree is restored.
As I was saying, the Holy Church whispers, “Prepare, O Bethlehem...” Here our attention is not directed towards whether there will be palaces, whether everything will be flooded with electric lights, or draped in velvet or silk. Bethlehem, the cave, a cow’s manger, the elderly Joseph, and at the same time the shepherds who were carrying out such a sincere watch; they were true Jews who awaited the True Messiah. And for them the heavens opened and, in their ears, resounded the angelic singing, “Glory to God in the highest, Glory to God, Glory to God in the highest!” (Lk. 2:14). And after them came the true searchers for Truth—the Magi following the Star. They were searching and searching. The Star led them on. They knew from the constellation that something great, something worldwide had happened. They proceeded. And here the Holy Church says to us: Look, who was the cave of Bethlehem calling? The shepherds, truly searching; and the Magi, truly searching.
And so it is with you, brothers and sisters. We are calling you to the Truth. But to what Truth? To what Tree of Life? What kind of Tree grew in the cave in Bethlehem? Christ reveals to us this understanding of the Tree of Life. He says, “I am that bread of life...I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eats of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is My Flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:48, 51).
Don’t you see, Christ is the Tree of Life, that Bread which we eat. And He says here definitely in the sixth chapter of John: Whoso eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him at the last day. For My Flesh is food indeed, and My Blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him (Jn. 6:54-56). This is what kind of Tree.
And this is the kind of Holy Day to which the Church has been calling us, whispering to us during the whole week this Troparion: “Prepare, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened for all. Ephratha show thy beauty, because the Tree of Life is coming—is coming to give us Life.”
But there is a first step toward this life. I say this every year, otherwise it wouldn’t be so convincing. What is happening in nature? Right now the earth is turning toward the sun and life-giving force is flowing into the earth. And in a little while our earth will begin to show its beauty; there will be flowers, followed by fruits. This happens every year.
So it happens in spiritual life. Just now, when you and I are making the first step toward the cave of Bethlehem, the Holy Church says to us through the Apostle’s reading to the Galatians (Gal. 4:4-5): When the time of Christ’s coming approached, the spirit of adoption (sonship) is poured into our soul. And this happens regardless. The same as in nature: regardless of whether or not the earth wants it, the life-giving force will be poured into it anyway. Only where there are weeds, there will be an offensive odor, decay. But where everything is ready to receive the seed, there will be joy and fragrance.
It is the same with us. Where our soul has prepared itself to receive the cave of Bethlehem, there will be adoption. What does this mean? This means that, inexplicably, as in nature, into our soul will be poured the power of Divine Grace, which will make us sense our nearness to the Creator, as to a Father. In this way, you have, he has, I have—we all have the same feeling toward one Father. In other words, one family is created. Brothers, if such a family is going to exist (and it will exist, it does exist already for such is the will of God), then in this family will be performed this mystery of Christ—the Tree of Life. In this Christian family the Mystical Supper, the Divine Eucharist, can be performed. In it the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ will be performed, the Sacrament of the Tree of Life, which is beyond all explanation.
People do not understand. Maybe they don’t even think about it, and maybe they don’t want to express it; but just the same, it expresses itself in spite of them. Look at the people of other confessions. In their desire to meet Christ, you also sense their desire to do something good to each other. It is expressed in trifles: ties, stockings, flowers, a watch, and so on. Everyone wants to give something to one another, not understanding the main thing that must be given. It is necessary to give something which will make a person feel that he is a son of our Lord Jesus Christ, to make him feel part of a family. To do this, we must look into a person’s heart, we have to be patient and maybe sometimes, lowering our head, just say: “God be merciful to me a sinner, because I have nothing more to give.” And so it is for each of us.
Let this Holy Day become the Holy Day of the consecration of our heart, of the acceptance of adoption, to perform for us this spiritual endeavor: the beginning of that which Christ gives. “Prepare, O Bethlehem...Christ shall be born to raise the image that fell of old.”