Nativity Meditation

Great is the mystery of godliness. (1 Timothy 3:16)

I confess that occasionally, on a Saturday evening, I find myself thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice to relax, stay home, and skip church tomorrow?" I'm not alone. Although people are flocking to churches in some parts of the world, attendance is declining in America and Europe. Many find church boring and irrelevant. Some churches have responded by trying to make their services lively and entertaining. Although enticing at first, I suspect many people grow tired of churches whose goal is to compete with secular entertainment by creating religious entertainment. I say this for two reasons. First, churches simply don't have the money to compete. More importantly, our souls were made for heaven, not Hollywood.

The best answer to the question "Why go to church?" might be found in Saint Paul's first letter to Timothy. Right in the middle of this ancient letter, the Apostle Paul quoted a 6-line creedal hymn. Every line is a statement about Jesus Christ, and the very first line speaks of His nativity: God was manifested in the flesh. At first glance, this hymn seems out of place, just dropped in with no connection to the text around it. Immediately before quoting the hymn, Paul wrote, "Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness." But what does "the mystery of godliness" have to do with Christ's incarnation?

Perhaps the words of Saint Athanasius capture the connection: "God became man so that man might become god." Such words sound scandalous unless we hear them as they were originally intended. God's intention has always been to share Himself with humanity. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1,14). "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12) that they might become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).

What is the mystery of godliness? How does one become godly? The mystery has been revealed: "God was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory" (1 Timothy 3:16). Because God became man, man can be joined to God, becoming like Him in the most intimate unity. This is the secret of godliness.

So what does all this have to do with going to church? Once again, the context of Saint Paul's words reveals the connection. In the preceding verse, the Apostle stated his purpose in writing the letter: "I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (v. 15). The entire letter was written so that people would know how to conduct themselves in Church. Why does it matter? The Apostle says, “Because the Church is God's house.” The Church is not merely a religious club or a service organization. It's the place on earth where God communes with humans in a special way. We go to Church to be with God, to become one with God.

That's why Saint Paul, earlier in the same letter, described the Church primarily as a house of prayer (2:1) - not a house of commerce or a house of entertainment (cf. Mark 11:17 and Isaiah 56:7). It's no accident that the historic and original Orthodox Church has preserved a liturgy which is continuous prayer. The prayers are infused with Scripture. The Gospel and Epistle readings are chanted prayerfully. And the entire liturgy is patterned after the heavenly worship described in the Apocalypse of Saint John. The center of the liturgy is the partaking of the Heavenly Banquet - the Lord's Supper. The whole purpose of the liturgy is to become one with God.

So when my weary human nature wants to skip church, perhaps I need to remember this grand truth: Great is the mystery of godliness. God was manifested in the flesh. God became man so that man can become god. And the place where God and man meet most fully is His house, the Church of the Living God.

When this is my perspective, going to Church becomes a "get to" not a "have to." It's a "Yes!" not a yawn. It's not about how good the choir sounds, how eloquent the preacher is, or how long the service runs. It’s about who’s going to be there. God has never missed a liturgy, so it’s always worth my while to be there.

Of course attending church does not automatically mean one becomes like God. Some of the most annoying and devilish people go to church. There's a lot more to it. I must cooperate with God (Philippians 2:12-13). But getting more out of church is a topic for another day.

Today, on the Feast of the Nativity, I want to stand in awe and appreciation of this reality. The Church is God’s house. It is the place where I can commune with God. It is the place where any of us can become godly. And it is this precisely because "God was manifested in the flesh."

Christ is born. Glorify Him!

- The Webmaster (Nativity 2012)