Wednesday, March 7 (OS 22 February) 2018: Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent; Finding of the relics of the Holy Martyrs at the Gate of Eugenius at Constantinople (395-423); New Hieromartyrs Priests Joseph and Vladimir, Deacon John and Martyr John (1918); New Hieromartyrs Priests Michael, John, Victor, John, Sergius, Andrew, Venerable Martyrs Sergius and Antipas, Venerable Martyr Parasceva, Martyrs Stephen and Nicholas, Martyrs Elizabeth, Irene, and Barbara (1938); New Martyr Andrew (1941); New Venerable Martyr Philaret (1942); Martyrs Maurice and the 70 warriors, including Photinus, Theodore, Philip, and others at Apamea in Syria († c. 305); Venerable Thalassius, Limnæus, and Baradatus, Hermits of Syria (5th C); Venerable Athanasius the Confessor of Constantinople († 821); Holy Hierarch Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome; Holy Hierarch Titus, Bishop of Bostra; Holy Hierarch Abilius, Bishop of Alexandria; Venerable Babylas the Jester; New Hieromartyr Michael Lisitsyn († 1918).
At the heart of the Gospel is the convergence of divine grace and human agency. I clearly do things. The challenge of the spiritual is to remember that what I do, I do not simply by my effort but by divine grace. There are two ways in which I can go wrong.
The first, as the Isaiah suggests, is that I can forget or deny the necessity of grace. My freedom is God’s gift to me. God’s grace is what makes my freedom possible.
King of Assyria forgets this. God doesn’t deny the king’s accomplishments. These are real. What is punished is his “arrogant boasting” and “haughty pride” that doesn’t thank–or even acknowledge–God’s role in securing the king’s victory.
The other temptation is that I so over-emphasize God’s grace that I fail to acknowledge my role in my life. Yes, my freedom, my creativity, and intelligence are God’s gifts to me but they are gifts given to me to use as I see fit within the limits of ser by God.
We aren’t passive participants in our own lives. This isn’t what God wills for us and it isn’t what He asks from us. I am a partner with God in my own life. A junior partner to be sure but a partner at the same.
To see this we need look no further than the story of Noah. God calls him to build the ark, gather the animals and, in today’s reading, he “and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark, to escape the waters of the flood.”
God “commanded Noah” and Noah exercised his creativity and freedom in obeying God. Actually, Noah’s freedom and creativity are revealed by his obedience. It is not an exaggeration to say Noah becomes more fully himself through his obedience to God.
Noah’s obedience and the King of Assyria’s arrogance share something in common. Both are the exclusive property of the man who acts. “If you are wise,” Solomon says, “you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone bear it.”
Virtue and vice, obedience and disobedience, humility and pride, all of these are the responsibility of the individual. While for many people (Christian or not) “individual” has a bad connotation, it does nevertheless serve to highlight the awesome–and at times frightening–responsibility each of us has for our own life.
Like divine grace, the life of the community is essential to our lives. But even if at times it causes me difficulties to do so, I can’t surrender my freedom to the demands of the community. I must freely affirm my membership in the various communities to which I belong.
The first great paradox of human life is this. When I surrender my freedom to the community, I cease to be a member of that community. I become instead a mere appendage to an anonymous collective, a cog in the machine.
To the mystery of divine grace and human freedom, we can now add the mystery of human uniqueness. We are each of us created in the image of God. For all our similarities, no two images are exactly the same.
Owing to the often subtle differences in life circumstances and to the different choices we make, as we grow in our likeness to God, our personal uniqueness is accentuated not diminished or obscured.
The second paradox of our life now comes to light.
To become more my own person, I must become more God’s. It is only through evermore freely saying “Yes” to God that I am able to become more fully who He created me to be.
Far from devaluing or denying human agency and the importance of the individual, the fidelity to the Gospel makes both possible.