Today’s Gospel starts out saying “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” What does this mean?
One of the chief characteristics of spiritual blindness is that we have no idea that we are suffering from it. The Pharisees are continually held out to us as examples of those who are most deluded and at the same time most confident that they are right. The Pharisees are completely resistant to having anyone intrude upon their world view; even God Himself standing in front of them in the flesh. Unfortunately, they aren’t really all that unique, and our sinful human nature has not improved, no matter what our new age friends in the wonderful human potential movement try to tell us.
As soon as we begin to suspect that our paradigm, our view of the world, is flawed and extremely limited and limiting, paradoxically we are actually on the road to having our eyesight corrected. We usually do not want to willingly give up our very comfortable and self-affirming world view however. We tend to surround ourselves with those who think as we do, so we can continually reassure each other that we are all viewing life and reality properly, allowing the narrow limitations of the cultural environment that we grow up in to shape our entire view of reality. People who don’t fit, who aren’t positive enough or somehow don’t get the social graces popular in our given time, who are too “left” or too “right, ” not like us, are to be pitied, corrected and then shunned if they don’t measure up.
True reality is that we here in North America have lived in a very unique time and place, and our world view, largely based on Christian values, was radically different from much of the world both geographically and historically. It is now becoming quite alarmingly different at an astounding rate of speed from even a decade or two ago right here in North America and it can certainly no longer be considered to be based on “Christian values.” Gay and Trans are the new norm we are to all to embrace. This week the supreme court ruled that because Trinity Western school requires their students to adhere to the Christian biblical notion that sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman is not to be practiced, that their law school graduates would no longer be able to be accredited and practice at the bar in Ontario and here in BC. The last time this issue came up in 2001 it was thrown out, and it was almost unimaginable that such a basic cultural understanding could even be questioned in generations before this. The new reality for doctors is that if someone is suffering they should be helped to commit suicide should they so desire. If you aren’t willing as a doctor to help them kill themselves, then you must refer them to a more enlightened colleague. Christian values that built our society are now considered not just irrelevant and outdated but dangerous and may well be illegal before too long. Christians are now seen as “haters” in many segments of our society. We must love all of our fellow human beings no matter how different their viewpoints are, and all we have to offer to anyone not seeking to follow the wisdom of the Church is the love of Christ for all of humanity not moral imperatives. But our understanding of what constitutes Orthodox Christian morality can never shift because of popular opinion or the cultural understanding of the day.
In the Orthodox Church we base our values and code of moral behaviour on the Christian tradition that has been faithfully passed down to us throughout every century since Pentecost. Our standard of reference is always our understanding of the Scriptures and Church tradition as given us through the fathers, through the various ecumenical councils, the many Church services and the common consensus of the Church Fathers writings. As cultural understanding changes, our acceptance of these changes must always be subject to them not conflicting with these traditional historically established understandings. Within the Orthodox Church this will always remain the same no matter how far society moves away from the Church’s view of morality. We should expect to be marginalized and persecuted for holding these increasingly unpopular beliefs as we go forward.
This isn’t a new outlook, we commemorate many martyrs who died rather than conform to the values of their idolatrous cultures every day. Just think of the pressures they were under to conform to the thinking of the society around them before they were martyred. This isn’t just ancient Roman culture. A millennium of Ottoman Muslim rule and almost a century of communist rule in the former Soviet Union both produced many more martyrs than the early Roman emperors, as vicious as Nero, Diocletian and their peers were. We need to be aware that it is not only possible but even likely that we and our children will face such decisions of faith very soon if the last decade of changes here in North America and Europe is any indication. May God have mercy.
When we think of the martyrs we think of these incredible strong and faithful Christians and we are in awe. It seems extreme to us to even have to think about giving up our very lives and dying for Christ. But martyrdom is the form of Christian life for all of us, no matter if married, single, or a monastic. The cross is one and the same for all. Yes, martyrs are what we as standard garden variety Orthodox Christians are all called to be. How many passages tell us that we are to be dead to the world and therefore alive to Christ? Today we hear in Matt. (6:24) “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” This is martyrdom; not living for yourself and your own personal desires, for the values of the world – for mammon – but for God. It is a sacrifice which begins when we are submerged under the baptismal waters and die, that we might emerge and begin to grow in new life in Christ. St. Paul tells us (Gal. 6:3) “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” and (Col.3.3) “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We then spend the rest of our lives growing in understanding and actions towards this wonderful life in Christ – Theosis – until we graduate at our physical death to true life. Christ has defeated death changing it from being the end of life into becoming the beginning of true life.
We are called to die to ourselves whether we live our lives as married couples, monastics, or single people in the Church. The calling is to live within these categories as martyrs. When we are married in the Orthodox Church we are given martyrs crowns. Did you think these were symbolizing that you get to be king and queen of your household? No, they are symbols of the complete opposite. You are given your soulmate that you may die to yourself and live in Christ by considering their well being before your own. I watched a wonderful Orthodox movie on you tube last week – recommended by our visitors Darrel and Cheryl -called “The Priest.” Have you seen it? Fr. Alexander goes through much tribulation during the 2nd world war with his faithful but very critically realistic wife who wouldn’t fit well in our “positive image only, watch the negativity” current culture. They adopt a number of orphan’s and she contacts typhoid and rather than risk infecting them with this deadly disease she selflessly wanders off into the forest during a blizzard and perishes. As she explains in her note to Fr. Alexander “not committing suicide but placing myself in God’s care.” Fr. Alexander is of course heartbroken and in a beautiful and telling expression cries out “What will I do without my dear grindstone?” We are to die to our “needs” and learn what it is to be martyrs in our marriages. To be grateful that God uses our mates to keep us from soul destroying self-satisfaction and pride. You won’t get this perspective from Hollywood, just from the saints. In another classic line, Fr. Alexander’s bishop is asked how he can practice as being an Orthodox Bishop being torn between the godless Bolsheviks and the brutal Protestant Nazi’s. His answer may be one we should all pay attention to in the coming years. “I twist and turn to follow the light of God with discernment attempting to allow the Church to exist as best as I can.” He was martyred shortly after this.
It is the same whether we are monastics or single people. God will send us grindstones in our monasteries, places of work or families that we may learn to be martyrs, to be dead to the world and our selfish natures that we might live in Christ. These wonderful people – these grindstones – are a gift from God to us. Do we see them as such? How did Christ demonstrate to us what it was to be God and the first true human being? He went willingly to His death on the cross for our sake. He also very clearly instructed us to do the same. (Matt.10:39) “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” We don’t often hear this message in our culture any more, although there was a time when the martyrdom values of putting the other one first and considering your responsibility to your society rather than fighting for your rights were certainly much better understood than in this present time. Yet even as long ago as 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the treasured Russian Nobel prize winning author of the Gulag Archipelago and survivor of 11 years in Soviet concentration camps addressed Harvard University with the following observations regarding North American society, “you are too focused on rights and need to refocus on obligations. You have embraced a false idea of liberty, conceiving it as doing as one pleases, rather than as the freedom to fulfill one’s human potential and honour one’s conscientious duties to God and neighbor. The focus on materialism, consumerism, self-indulgent individualism, emotivism and narcissism is resulting in increasing immorality.
The chief characteristic of being a human being is that we have free will. This means we get to choose. Growing in Christ comes from a lifetime of constantly choosing God’s ways over our natural rebellious ways. The culture we presently live in constantly feeds this rebellion. The wisdom of the world is very different from the wisdom of God. My ways are not your ways God tells us over and over in scripture. Where do our minds dwell most of the time? Is our mind constantly thinking “What shall we eat and drink? What shall we wear? How will we pay the bills and save for retirement?” Today we are told (Matt. 6:32-33) “…For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
Let us ask God continually to heal our blindness, to allow His precious light to illuminate the areas in our lives that keep His grace and tender love from reaching into our hearts, and to give us the strength and courage to choose to serve Him rather than mammon. Through the prayers of St. Aidan, St. Cuthbert and all of the Celtic saints whom we are celebrating today, may we ever grow to trust and experience all that God has for us. Glory to Jesus Christ!