This homily was preached on Sunday Morning, December 8, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.
Today we celebrate the Second Sunday in Advent, and the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, our God is One. Amen.
The icon which the Orthodox Church uses to celebrate this feast is an impressive one. It shows Mary’s–well, we don’t have her parents’ icon up right now because we’re remodeling–Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, an elderly couple embracing, standing right next to their bed. So, yes, we actually have an Orthodox icon that looks into the bedroom of Joachim and Anna.
There’s a number of things that we can learn from this. We see that, first of all, the marriage bed is holy. This is not an icon that the Church is ashamed of, and puts in a brown paper sack and just shows to people on this one feast day. This is an icon that they put out, that they hang up in churches, in peoples’ homes. People venerate this, and it’s a good, clean and holy thing. These are Saints of God, they’re married to each other, and in their preparation for the conception of the Virgin Mary, there was no sin involved.
A second thing to realize from this feast, this looking at the Conception of the Virgin Mary, is that life is sacred, and that it begins at conception. See, it’s common in our culture to celebrate birthdays. And the Church likes to celebrate birthdays too. So we have the Nativity of the Virgin Mary that we celebrate on September 8th. What a coincidence; it’s nine months after today, December the 8th. We also celebrate every year the Nativity of Christ. We celebrate His birth on December 25th, and we are in Advent now, which is why we have the Advent candles burning. But not only do we celebrate birth, we also have entire feasts of the Church dedicated to celebrating, not the birth, not the death, but the conception of life. Mary did not become “Mary”–she did not become “human”–on the day of her birth. Mary became a person–she became human–on the day she was conceived.
So we have this feast for the Conception of the Virgin Mary. We also have a feast where we celebrate the conception of Jesus. It’s called the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel comes and speaks to Mary and then, after that, the Holy Ghost comes upon her and the Incarnate Son of God becomes a child in her womb. We have these feasts of the Church that are a direct testament to the sanctity of life at the very point of conception. This is one of those explicitly “pro-life” feasts. And if we would see the significance of the feast, if the world would see the significance of the feast, then every abortion clinic would shut down immediately.
A third thing that we can see in this feast when we consider this icon of Joachim and Anna embracing, standing next to their bed preparing to conceive the Virgin Mary, is that, not only is the marriage bed holy, and not only does life begin at conception, but that the connection between those two things should never be broken.
I want you to imagine something, and then we’ll come back around to this. I want you to imagine something. Imagine that your next door neighbor hates you. Now, you may have had disagreements with people before, people that irritate you a little bit; you irritate them. But this is not just somebody who wants you to go away and move to some other town. This is not just somebody who wants you to leave the country. This is not just somebody who wants you to go live on the other side of the world. This is somebody who literally does not want you to live on this planet. They want you gone. They want to know that wherever they go in the entire world, you will not be there. That’s how much they hate you. Now, they don’t want to go to prison, so they never actually kill you. But we know that according to the teachings of Christ, just to want to do something, just to desire to do something, you’re already guilty of it in your heart. Jesus said that a man who looks after a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery in his heart. Jesus says the same thing about murder. He said, “You have heard that it was said of old, ‘You shall not murder’. I tell you that he who hates his brother without a cause is already guilty” (of murder). Think about that. Anybody that you hate, any person that you hate–that makes you guilty of murder in your heart.
Now that’s easy enough to understand. That’s easy enough to imagine. But I want to change it just a little bit, okay? Let’s say the person actually does decide to get rid of you, but they think about it and they just think, “Man, the blood, the gore, the guts, I don’t want to deal with it. That would be too messy. And how would I dispose of the body? That’d be too much trouble.” But just imagine that scientific technology has progressed to the point that this person actually discovers a real, working time machine! This person actually gets ahold of a time machine. And they’re wanting to do away with Ruth (this person just hates your guts). And so this person says,
“You know what? I’m not going to kill her. I don’t have to use knives, I don’t have to use a gun, and I’m going to go back in time. I’m going to find out what her birthday is. I’m going to go back about 9 or 10 months before that. I’m going to go mess around with Kenneth and Winnie (Ruth’s parents), and just do whatever I need to do to keep them apart, keep them away from each other, just to make sure that Ruth never is conceived in the first place, make sure that she never exists.”
You ever see that movie Back to the Future? Marty McFly goes back in time and accidentally interrupts his parents meeting each other, and before everything gets fixed, he starts disappearing, and he can see through his hand. He starts getting really weak, and he just about goes “poof” into non-existence. What if you found out that your next door neighbor was going to do this to you? They decided they weren’t going to kill you. They were just going to go back in time and prevent you from ever existing in the first place. Wouldn’t you feel so much better? That wouldn’t make it any better at all, would it? Wouldn’t that person be just as guilty of murder, doing that to you, as they would if they came and slit your throat or shot you with a gun? Either way, it is the fruit of their hatred. Either way, it is the fruit of this person saying,
“I don’t want you to exist. I don’t want you on this planet. I don’t want you to live. I don’t even want you to exist in the first place. I just want you gone. I don’t want to think about you, see you, hear about you.”
That’s certainly the opposite of love, isn’t it? If you love a human being, if you love the image of God, if you believe that every child is sacred, that every child is a gift from God, then you’re going to love and welcome every one. There’s not one of them that you’re going to look at and say, “Man, I just don’t want you to exist at all. I hate you. I want you gone.”
Let’s turn that around just a little bit. Let’s say that we have a time machine, but now we’re going to go into the future. We’re not going to go into the past, we’re going to go into the future and then come back. And so I go into the future and I look at my child, I see them born, I see them grow up, I see them have children, and I say,
“You know what? I really don’t like my kid very much. I really don’t want you to exist. You know what? I’m not going to kill you, I’m not going to go to that trouble, that’d be messy and what would I do with the body? You know what? I’ll just return to where I came from and just make sure that you never exist in the first place. Honey, call up the doctor and get a prescription. Let’s take some birth control pills for the next six months, just to make sure we’ve got this covered. I went into the future and I saw that kid of mine, and I just, I really don’t like them, so I’m just going to keep them from existing in the first place.”
Is that any different? Is that scenario any different from the first scenario, of the person who goes back in time to get rid of you?
Here’s what birth control advocates try to tell us. They try to say, “It’s not a real person. They don’t exist yet. They’re just imaginary.” Let me tell you, if laying with your spouse only led to imaginary children, they wouldn’t be using birth control. The only thing they’re trying to avoid with birth control are the real thing! Those are real human beings. Now, they don’t go ahead in real time machines, but they know,
“Look, we’re married now. If we keep doing what we’re doing, then sometime in the next six to twelve to eighteen months, there’s a real human being that is very likely to come into existence. If I could go ahead in a time machine right now and look, I’m almost positive that I would see a little baby rocking in my wife’s arms and I don’t want that.”
So, calling ahead in time,
“Son, I’m sorry, but I don’t want you. In fact, I’m pro-life, I’m anti-abortion, I’m not going to wait until you exist and kill you, but I’m . . . You know what? You’re not even going to exist! I’m going to make sure that we get rid of you now.”
Is that any different from murder? Is that honestly any different from abortion?
Now, there are many in the world, and sadly there are even many in the Church–in the Orthodox Church today–who would listen to me and say,
“Aww, get with the times. Don’t you realize how many Orthodox Christians in America are pro-choice? Don’t you realize how many of them are pro-birth control?”
My answer is, “I don’t care!” Abortion has always been wrong, regardless of how many people say it’s okay, whether they’re inside or outside the Church. Abortion has always been murder. But then they would say,
“Oh, but you’re just going overboard. I mean, maybe you should say birth control is not wise, or maybe you could even say it’s a sin, but how dare you compare it to murder! Aren’t you going overboard, Deacon?”
I want to read you just a few excerpts from some of the Early Church Fathers in the Orthodox Church. You don’t have to listen to anything I say. I hope that you will want to listen to them.
Have you ever heard of a Saint by the name of Saint John Chrysostom? He is one of the most highly-venerated Saints in all of Orthodoxy. The liturgy in the Church that is most-often used, is named after him. When he was preaching through the book of Romans, Saint John Chrysostom said the following,
“Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility [oral contraceptives], where there is murder before conception? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. Indeed, it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it, for she does not kill what is formed, but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with His laws? Yet such turpitude, the matter still seems indifferent to many men. Even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men, there is greater evil filth. For then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks.”
Saint Ambrose spoke of mixtures that are taken like potions or medicines that are used in marriage in the course of his commentary on Genesis. And Saint Ambrose said–he was talking about the rich who would use these things–and he said that,
“Lest their patrimony be divided among several, they deny their own fetus in the uterus and, by a parricidal potion, extinguish the pledges of the womb in their genital belly and life is taken away before it is transmitted.”
Another fourth-century Latin Father, Saint Jerome, also treated the subject of contraception. Condemning the immorality of the Roman women of his time, he wrote, “Others indeed will drink sterility and murder a man not yet born.” In that case, he was probably talking about abortion. But in any case, this repeated reference of “drinking sterility” is often used by the Fathers as a reference to oral contraceptives.
Then there’s Saint Augustine. In one of his letters, Saint Augustine writes,
“I am supposing that then, although you are not lying for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called ‘husband and wife’, are not. Nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with their respectable name, cover a shame. They give themselves away indeed when they go so far as to expose their children who were born to them against their will. For they hate to nourish or to have those they feared to bear. Therefore a dark iniquity rages against those whom they have unwillingly born. And with open iniquity, this comes to light. A hidden shame is demonstrated by a manifest cruelty.”
“Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this: That they even procure poisons of sterility. And if these do not work, extinguish and destroy the fetus in some way in the womb preferring that their offspring die before it lives. Or, if it was already alive in the womb, to kill it before it was born.”
So now he’s talking about these in the same breath. They take these “medicines of sterility” initially trying to avoid conception, but if conception has already happened, then they take certain of these drinks to try to kill whatever child is inside them.
And then Saint Augustine continues,
“Assuredly if both husband and wife are like this, they are not married. And if they were like this from the beginning, they come together not jointed in matrimony, but in seduction. If both are not like this, I dare to say that either the wife is, in a fashion, the harlot of her husband, or he is an adulterer with his own wife.”
It’s interesting that word “matrimony”–you know the very definition of “matrimony”? “Matri-“ is “mother”. “Matrimony” is “mother-making”. We think of the wedding, we think of the marriage as “Holy Matrimony”. Whenever we use that phrase, we’re saying, “Holy Mother-Making”. How can you make her a mother if she’s using birth control? How can it be “Matrimony” if there is birth control?
And then, finally, we’ll take a look at St. John the Faster. He is a sixth-century Patriarch of Constantinople, a sixth-century Patriarch in the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople:
“If someone, to satisfy his lust or in deliberate hatred, does something to a man or a woman so that no children be born of him or her and gives them to drink so that he cannot generate or she conceive, let it be held as homicide.”
Homicide is murder.
So maybe the analogy that I used was not so far off base after all. If your neighbor looks at you as a real person and wants to kill you, they are guilty of murder in their heart. It doesn’t get any better if they say, “Well, I wish I could go back in time and just keep them from existing in the first place.” That’s still murder.
It’s no better if I stand today, and I look into the future and I see–if I continue as I am with my wife–there’s going to be this real live person created in the image of God, and I say, “I don’t want that! Instead of waiting until they’re born and killing them, I’m just going to keep them from existing in the first place.”
The Early Church Fathers talked about contraception in the same breath that they talked about abortion and murder. They’re the same thing! Either way, you are looking at conception. The very thing that we celebrate–the Conception of Virgin Mary–they are saying, “We don’t want conception. We want contraception. We want the opposite of what the Church celebrates on September 8th. We want the opposite of what the Church celebrates on the Feast of the Annunciation.”
Now, does that mean that it is a sin for a husband and wife to be together unless there is the possibility of having a child? That depends on whether we trust man or whether we trust God. You see, if you trust man, then you’re going to go to the doctors to find out whether it’s possible for you to have a child or not. But Joachim and Anna–like Abraham and Sarah–were in old age, well past the years that doctors said it was possible to have a child. Medically, it couldn’t happen. But God said, “It can happen and it will happen.”
So, another wonderful thing about the icon of this feast, is that it shows us that there can be openness to life at every stage of a marriage. You don’t have to go to the doctors, and they take certain samples and do certain counts and say, “Well, there’s no way you’re going to be able to have a baby.” That doesn’t mean you have to be celibate for the rest of your married life. If you are older and of age where in this world people usually don’t have anymore children, you can still be open to life. You can still come together and just realize,
“Look, if God chose to bless, He can. He has the ability to. He might not, and that’s okay too. But every time we come together, it’s not just for pleasure in the bedroom. Whenever we come together as husband and wife we truly do, from our hearts before God, have an openness to life. We look at conception as a good thing. We look at children as a gift.”
I think it’s interesting when the world, by its actions, proves that it knows the Truth, even if it responds to it in the wrong way. In the culture, it’s just expected that teenage girls and teenage boys are going to go off alone together, and date, and do whatever they want without parental supervision.
That’s stupid. That’s unwise.
And yet, even though that is expected by our culture, isn’t it interesting that almost every day out there parents will make cracks about, you know,
“Boy, I’m just going to be sitting here at home cleaning my gun. So you’d better not hurt her. You’d better bring her back on time. You’d better not touch her.”
You can have a profane man who never sets foot in church, who doesn’t work that hard, who cheats, who lies, who does every other thing he can imagine, and in many cases, when some guy comes to date his daughter, he’s going to be making that comment about, “Well, I’m going to be sitting here cleaning my gun. See this bullet, boy? It’s got your name on it.”
There’s just something built into human nature that knows that fathers are supposed to protect their daughters. Now, he may fail at it. She may still go off. She may get pregnant out of wedlock. She may have nothing to do with Christ. But there’s something built-in where dads just know, “You know what? I should be protecting her.”
And so it is in other ways in our culture. Another way that our culture knows the Truth is in this regard to the connection between birth control and abortion. Our culture, our judicial system, our Supreme Court knows that they are the same thing, that they are connected to each other. And to find out that, all you have to do is look at the history of how abortion became legal in this country.
Did you know that in the late 1800s, early 1900s, it was illegal for even a medical doctor to import birth control into this country or to mail it across state lines? Illegal! It was illegal for any person to do it. You couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it. And then in 1916, a woman by the name of Margaret Sanger, who later ended up founding Planned Parenthood, who we have to thank for millions of abortions today–Margaret Sanger had this idea of wiping out a lot of the black population; she was a racist. She wanted abortions to be legal so that the poor black women in the inner cities, instead of breeding, would go have these babies killed before they were even born. And sure enough, to this day that’s where many many many of the abortions come from. Her racist plan for eugenics worked. She set up Planned Parenthood, and ended up killing many blacks, and many whites as well.
But the first step in this, in 1916, she didn’t set up Planned Parenthood. The first step in what Margaret Sanger did was to attack these birth control laws. In 1916, in Brooklyn, New York, Margaret set up the first-in-America “Family Planning and Birth Control Center”, what would eventually become what we call Planned Parenthood. Within nine days, the police came and arrested her.
By the year 1918, in New York appeals court, an appeals court judge ruled that it is legal for a medical doctor to import birth control because these things are necessary for “the public health”, so that in a case that a doctor makes the medically-informed decision that pregnancy might be detrimental to a certain woman’s health, he should be allowed to prescribe birth control in that limited case. So the doors just cracked open a little bit. Now birth control is legal. Doctors can prescribe it, in special cases.
Now, as of 1918, birth control is still condemned by every church in the world. And when I say “church”, I’m saying any kind of church that calls itself a church (not just the Orthodox) universally condemned it. Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, everybody! But everybody else . . . the Roman Catholic church condemned birth control; the Presbyterian church condemned birth control; the Anglican church condemned birth control; the Methodist church condemned birth control; the Baptist churches . . . all Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants may have been divided on a lot of things, but they were all unanimously in agreement on this one thing – that for 1900 years, since the time of Christ, birth control was out of the question. You don’t do that.
But in 1918, Margaret Sanger and this federal judge finally got it pushed through into the courts that doctors can prescribe it. By 1930, you see the first crack among those who call themselves “Christians”. The Anglican church, in the year 1930, put out a statement saying, “Well, birth control, in certain cases, might be okay for a married couple.” See, they didn’t want to throw open the flood gates, they didn’t want to cause a sexual revolution, they didn’t want everybody taking birth control and having sex without consequences. But the Anglican church, after 1900 years of ecclesiastical unanimity in all churches, in 1930, the Anglican church said, “Well, there may be some married couples who, in certain cases, ought to be able to use birth control.” So the secular world in 1918 cracks that door open. The Anglican church in 1930 cracks that door open. Over the next 30 to 40 years, virtually every Protestant church went the same way as the Anglican church and started saying, “Aww, birth control is fine, don’t worry about it.” It’s only within the past two generations that any Protestant churches have said it’s okay.
And we know what happened in the culture, don’t we? In the 1930s, you have the United States vs. One Package case, in which a second circuit appeals court looked at this and said, “Well, you can’t stop doctors from mailing and importing this stuff, you know, because the 1918 decision said it’s okay for doctors to prescribe birth control.” Then the decision in the 1930s said, “Well, if it’s okay for them to prescribe it, then it must be okay for them to import it and to mail it across state lines.” And then where the wheels fell off were in the 1960s and the 1970s.
1965 Supreme Court Case–I believe it was Griswold vs. Connecticut–In 1965 the Supreme Court justices ruled that married persons have what is called “The Right to Privacy” according to the Constitution of the United States, and that since married persons have “The Right to Privacy”, then it is the right of a married woman, if she wants to, without government interference, to purchase and use birth control. Did you know that–in your lifetime–birth control was so controversial that it had to go to the Supreme Court just to allow married women to use it? 1965–Griswold vs. Connecticut.
And then 1972, just seven years later, you have Eisenstadt vs. Baird. And in 1972, the Supreme Court said, “Well, not only can married women use birth control,” but in 1972 they made it legal for unmarried women to use birth control. That’s just within the past generation.
And do you know what happened the year after Eisenstadt vs. Baird?
Roe vs. Wade.
Now, at this point, some people might say,
“Aww, now you’re not being fair. You’re playing a trick on us, Deacon. Just because somebody does something, and does something else, and then later if they do this other thing, it doesn’t mean that it was caused by these things. Just because the Supreme Court said that birth control is okay for married women in 1965, and just because the Supreme Court said that birth control is okay for unmarried women in 1972, there’s no connection between those two Supreme Court cases and Roe vs. Wade in January of 1973.”
I might agree, except for the fact that–if you read the justices’ decision in Roe vs. Wade—they explicitly use those two cases as precedent for making abortion legal. If you read Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court said, because women have a “right to privacy” and married women can have birth control, and because it’s okay for unmarried women to have birth control, therefore abortion is okay, too, and also falls under that same “right to privacy”.
It’s not just the ancient Fathers of the Orthodox Church that saw abortion and birth control as the same thing. Even the Supreme Court of the United States said that if you legalize one, you have to legalize the other.
How many Christians have openly advocated birth control and said it’s fine, said there’s nothing to worry about? How many priests have led their people astray by telling them that this is okay? And then they turned right around and said,
“Man, why are we losing the culture war? How come we fight and we write and we do all these things and we’re still murdering 4000 unborn children a day? Why is it that over 50 million have been slaughtered in our country since Roe vs. Wade? We just don’t know why we can’t win.”
Maybe it’s because the culture knows that we are hypocrites, and that if we truly thought that zygote was so sacred–that conceived child in the image of God was so sacred–then we wouldn’t be bending over backwards to take drugs to avoid it!
Today we celebrate a zygote. Today we celebrate a human being that’s this big [the size of the head of a pin]. In most of the feasts that celebrate the Virgin Mary, we see an icon of the Virgin Mary. But in the icon for this feast, all you see is Joachim, Anna and a bed. You don’t see Mary in the icon because she’s too small. She’s this tiny, little zygote, just a few cells. And just as a few cells, she is already the image of God, she is already fully human, she’s already a person. And we celebrate her.
Now, this particular sermon you may not hear in a lot of other churches today. But here’s what you will hear in many churches, be they Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran–any of them that preach on the Conception of the Virgin Mary on this feast day. One of the things that is repeated over and over and over again every year . . . Orthodox Churches teach that Mary was born just like us, that she’s just like you and me, she’s a human being. She is not some specially set-apart goddess that has no connection to humanity. She is human, she is us, she’s the flesh of Adam, she’s the flesh of Eve.
And here’s what I want to challenge us to do: If we are going to honor her conception, and if we’re going to preach that she is just like us and that we are just like her, and that there is this connection between her and between us, then should we not only honor her conception, but every conception as being sacred?
Because, if she’s just like us, if she’s human just like us, and her conception is so holy, so sacred that we celebrate it, then should we not celebrate and look forward to–and look at it as a gift–to every conception that takes place when God reaches down, and together with a husband and his wife, the three make new life. That’s not something to be killed and it’s not something to be avoided.
The lesson of this feast is that every conception is something to be welcomed with open arms. It’s a glorious thing. It’s a gift from God. It’s a human being made in the image of God, just like you, just like me, and just like her.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is One. Amen.
This homily was preached on Sunday Morning, December 8, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.