Archpastoral Letter for the Nativity 2005
The Bethlehem Treasure of Incense
Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts of gold and
frankincense and myrrh.- Matthew 2.11
To the Beloved Clergy and Faithful of this God-Saved Diocese:
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Christos Raždajetsja! Slavite Jeho!
Dear Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers, Clergy and Faithful:
Today, we have followed the Shepherds under the wings of Angels. Today, we
have seen the Star, and we have traveled with the Wise Men. Today, we have
searched in the habitations of the City, and we have found the Family of God in
The Prince of Heaven, the Son of God, has embraced human nature in the roots
of the earth, amidst the common beasts of the field. Born of God the Father to
the young Virgin Mary, and fostered by the elderly and righteous Joseph, Jesus
Christ shines with royal majesty - not from a palace, but from a place occupied
by the likes of you and me.
There was nothing sentimental about the images of the stable, the beasts and
the manger. There was nothing noble about the shepherds. The people who first
heard the second chapter of St. Luke in the Roman Empire
would have goggled at the idea of royalty stooping so very low.
But that is the very wonder of it all. The Gospel proclaims that in fact,
God did stoop so low. Contrary to the sensibilities of high-born rulers and
well-heeled merchants, the Son of God became the Son of Man in the middle of
life and in the shadows of the earth.
The Christ Child was hidden from the ones who thought that authority lay in
the might of armies, and that riches were counted out in pieces of gold. But
for those who were convinced that riches and power lay rightly in the Divinity
of infinite beauty and peace, the Nativity of Christ was not hidden at all.
Indeed, the Mystery of the Incarnation was unveiled by the shining of a new
Star, and the rapturous song of the Angels.
So the Magi who were truly wise recognized the star for what it was, and
they traveled the long pilgrimage of adoration. They arrived in the tranquility
of starlight, and knelt before the Virgin Theotokos and the Child Christ - the
Second Adam, the True King of all Creation, Who would finally set things
They brought with them frankincense, along with gold and myrrh. It was
frankincense that was the truly wise recognition of divinity. Incense is never
given as a birthday gift. Such a gift is appropriate only for One Who is
divine, for the Son of Man Who is the Son of God.
For hundreds of years, if not thousands, before the Birth of Christ, frankincense
was the aroma of divine royalty. It was used in the Tabernacle of the
wilderness, and in the Temple on Mount Zion.
The Hebrew priests of the Old Covenant offered incense, in deep mysteries of
the Temple, in
prayer for forgiveness and mercy.
And, it turns out, they offered frankincense in the Temple as a prayer of expectation. When the
priest and the people prayed in Jerusalem,
they recognized that things could not remain as they were. They knew that their
religion was but a preparation for a fulfillment to come. Something was wrong
with the universe, and with the heart of man. Adam had broken the entire world
with sin, and death had polluted life to its very base.
It was clear, in the Old Covenant of the Jews, that there had to come a
Second Adam Who would be the Suffering Servant of the human race, Who would
fulfill all sacrifice as the Lamb that was slain, Who would be the Son of Man,
the Anointed One, Christ of the Ages, the Ancient of Days.
So the frankincense of expectation rose as perfumed smoke to the sky,
calling in faith to the God of love, hoping that the Creator would not forsake
His works to the despair of sin. King Solomon understood this deep association
between incense and longing in the Song of Songs: Until the day breathes and the
shadows flee, I will approach the mountain of myrrh and the hill of
frankincense (Song of Songs 4.6).
And so they waited - people, priest and king - in the Temple of Jerusalem,
which was called the "mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense." For hundreds
of years they waited "until the day breathes and the shadows flee."
The day breathed at the shining of the Daystar. The shadows fled at the
brilliance of the Sun of Truth, at the choral shout of "Glory to God in the
highest, and peace to His people on earth!"
For on that day, the God of love so loved the world, that He gave His
Who would have thought that this God of love was love precisely because He
is Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Who would have ever anticipated that the Son of Man would turn out to be God
Who could have considered that the Lamb that was slain for the sins of the
world would be revealed as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Who swallowed up
death by death by the ineffable roar of love - a roaring Word of exaltation
that smashed the bronze gates of darkness, a Word that continues to resonate in
every corner of the universe and in every heart of man?
Who could have known that this Child Christ, born in a Manger, would be the
very Jesus Son of God, Who would sit in splendor on the Judgment Throne at the
Last Day, in the dread Tribunal when Christ "fills all in all"?
In the aroma of frankincense, in the incense of humble expectation and
hopeful prayer, the Wise Men knew this Child to be the Son of God.
And in that hushed moment, when all of heaven stopped to accompany the
adoration of the Magi, the meaning of frankincense was changed forever.
When once it was the hopeful yearning for an unknown future, now it means
the glad certainty of Christ Whom we have met, Jesus with Whom we have
communed, Who will one day come back to rescue and renew that which is His own.
When once it was the recognition of a royalty so far removed, now it means
the intimate relationship with Christ Who has intermingled His fully divine
nature with His fully human nature.
When once it was the ritual for Divine distance and difference, now it is
the loving prayer of belief, obedience and thanksgiving.
Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense, King David sang (Psalm
141.2), and we all join his words in Vespers, And let the lifting up of my
hands be a sacrifice!
In the mystical fragrance of frankincense, let us recognize our King and our
God. In this aromatic gift of the Magi, let us answer the invitation of the
Holy Trinity. Let us, by prayer and deed, become the aroma of incense in this
perishing world. Let us offer the incense of thanksgiving and devotion, for we
serve the King of All, and we adore the Child of Bethlehem, the Son of God,
O come, let us adore Him!
Yours in the Natal Light of the Christ