Sunday, December 11, 2016: Sunday of Forefathers (Ancestors) of Christ
Venerable Daniel the Stylite; Luke the New Stylite of Chalcedon; Nikon “the dry” of the Kiev Caves; Venerable Leontios of Achaia; Martyr Barsabbas of Persia
We can always find a reason to say “No!” to God. In the parable Jesus tells this morning, we hear two such excuses. For those who decline the king’s invitation, they do so because of the demands of work and family life.
But in the beginning—before the Fall—work and family life were essential aspects of our communion with God.
…God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:27-28, NKJV).
And, in the beginning, work and family life are the arena within which we exercise our creativity and royal dignity. Taken together, work and family life are the practical ways in which human beings express the image of God within us and so grow in our personal likeness to the Holy Trinity.
Sin doesn’t change any of this. But as it does with everything else that God has given us, sin tempts us to value the gift more than the Giver, the invitation more than the Host, the means more than He Who is the End of all human desire and striving, Christ our True God!
This is why, in the epistle, St Paul counsels us to kill everything is that that is “earthly.” As he makes clear in the next breath, “earthly” doesn’t bodily or material but all the myriad ways in which we refuse to accept with gratitude the gift of our life. “Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness … anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk,” and lying to our each other, these are the practices of sin. These, corrode our likeness to God, destroy love and rob us of our dignity.
And these things distort work and family life into something mean and ugly. They make work drudgery and sow discord in the family.
This is why, in our popular culture, our preparation for Christmas are frequently so often seem burdensome. Even if I haven’t fallen into any of the serious sins St Paul lists, the “old nature” and its effects still have a hold on me. No matter how far I think I’ve come in the spiritual life, I still need to be “renewed,” I need to conform myself more closely to the image of the Creator that is my identity.
Instead of looking outside myself for happiness, I need to turn inward. This doesn’t mean that I don’t need to work or that I can turn my back on human society. But it does mean that, part from Christ, work and social status aren’t of any lasting value. While it too is as prone to becoming an end in itself, the ascetical life of the Church is means to help purify me of the myriad distractions that cause me to turn away from God. When rooted in the sacraments, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor return me to myself and to the God Who dwells in my heart.
And what the ascetical life can do for me, it can do for each of us. Through asceticism, we can become who we are, who God has created us to be, and find the peace that even our secular culture celebrates at this time of year.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that unfortunately for many Orthodox Christians, ascetical struggle is not a fruitful experience. For some, the ascetical life remains untried. If they think of it at all, they think of it as something for monks but not for those who live in the world.
For others, asceticism is a purely formal demand of being an Orthodox Christian. I’ve heard more than one Orthodox Christian say with pride that Orthodoxy is demanding because of our ascetical practices.
Both of these views about the ascetical life are misguided.
Asceticism is not simply for monastics. Look at your own life. What do you have of lasting value that isn’t the fruit of struggle and self-denial?
As for Orthodoxy being demanding, what is demanding is not asceticism but the reason we engage in asceticism: to grow in our personal likeness to God. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor can be demanding but the effort they require pales in comparison to love.
To be faithful to our primordial vocation to work and family life, doesn’t mean that we will necessarily work for pay or marry and have children. Our vocation to work and family life means that God has called each of us to shape His creation and to do so for the glory of God and to create a fit home not simply for our own families but all of humanity.
Too frequently, we minimize—or even actively reject—the role of human ingenuity and creativity in the Christian life. When we do so, we obscure that which reflects the image of God in the human person. It is precisely our ability to understand and shape creation in ways which our unique to each of us personally, that most reflects God’s image. And it is the exercise of these faculties that makes it possible of each of us to grow in our likeness to Him.
And all of this the men in the parable rejected. In failing to follow Jesus as His disciples, they ratified their own enslavement to sin and blinded themselves to the very life they preferred to Jesus.
That’s the great irony of sin. It pursuing a life apart from Christ, I don’t just lose salvation in the world to come, I also lose the joy I could have in this life. While there are many ways to understand the ascetical life that is at the heart of our lives as Orthodox Christians, one of the best is that asceticism is a preparation for joy.
Joy in my work.
Joy in my relationships.
Joy in all facets of my life even when suffering and disappointment seem to dominate.
All this, and Eternal Life, the men in the parable lost because they preferred the gift to the Giver.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We can’t lose sight of the life to which we have been called by Christ. Nor can we afford to forget that not only has He called each of us, personally, to follow Him as His disciples but He has charged us as well to sustain each other in that journey! We aren’t simply disciples but sources of strengthen and consolation for each other.
As we prepare to welcome the New Born Christ Child, let us re-commit ourselves not simply to be His disciples but to support and encourage each other to live as disciples and witness to the Gospel!
Christ is Born!