Saturday, November 17, 2012

Following the Theotokos into the Peace of Christ: Homily on the First Sunday of Advent in the Orthodox Church

Luke 12: 16-21
Ephesians 2:14-22
         If we look around the world today, we see so much violence, hatred, and suffering.  Nations and peoples insist on their own way and often refuse to forgive past wrongs or to work together toward a peaceful future.  And the same is all too true of us in how we look at our own society, as well as our families, friendships, and other daily interactions with people.
            In this season of Advent, of the Nativity Fast that prepares us to welcome Christ at Christmas, we all need to hear the good news proclaimed by St. Paul that the Savior is our peace.  St. Paul stressed to the Ephesians that the fundamental social divide of his time—between Jew and Gentile—had been overcome in Jesus Christ.  As the God-Man, He united humanity and divinity in His own Person, bringing us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity by His cross and resurrection.  No longer does it matter what our ethnic heritage is, our nationality or culture, for all who put on Christ become fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.  With our Savior as the chief cornerstone and the apostles and prophets as the foundation, we grow together into a holy temple of the Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus Christ is truly the salvation of the entire creation.
            That is a very different understanding of peace and reconciliation from what we hear from the competing interests of the world.  Throughout history, powerful individuals, groups, and nations have beaten down their rivals and then called it peace.  Of course, that approach eventually leads to disaster as the fall of the great empires of the world has shown.  Brutality and vengeance inevitably lead to more of the same.  And even those who are successful in dominating others during their lifetimes cannot avoid the ultimate meaning and purpose of our existence as those created in God’s image and likeness.  Like the rich fool in today’s gospel lesson, it is possible to trust in passing glory and comfort, but ultimately to lose one’s own soul.  Those who worship themselves and the illusions of well-being that they have created succeed only in diminishing their humanity and shutting themselves out of the heavenly peace for which they were created.  It is possible to have everything in this life, but to be desperately poor before God.
            This coming Wednesday, we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.  The Virgin Mary was not wealthy or powerful by any worldly standard, and the account of her elderly parents taking her to the Temple where she prepared to become the living temple of the Lord surely did not strike fear in the hearts of emperors or of rich, influential people.  Her life was not focused on laying up treasures for herself or indulging in passing pleasures.  Instead, she chose the one thing needful :  hearing and obeying the word of God.  Indeed, she accepted personally into her own life in a totally unique way the Incarnate Word of God Jesus Christ.  And through her pure obedience, the Savior has come to us all.  
            The Theotokos is certainly entirely different from the rich fool.  His life revolved around his wealth; and when he had acquired enough, he was ready to eat, drink, and be merry.  The problem is that God did not create us for a life dominated by worldly ambition or unrestrained self-indulgence; instead, He wants us to become ever more like Him.  But if we refuse to do that and try to find peace in trying to control others and in satisfying every self-centered inclination, we become less than human.  We will become slaves to our desires and pleasures, which soon become addictions, and which will soon make us miserable and separate us even from those we love most in this life.
            Of course, money, food, drink, comfort, wealth, relationships, and other blessings have their place in this life, but they are not to become what life is about.  If we make them false gods, we will destroy ourselves and lose them also because only God is God.  No part of creation finds peace or fulfillment unless it is offered to Him for blessing in accordance with His purposes for it.  And that includes you and me.  There is no path to the richness of the Kingdom apart from obedience.  At the end of the day, our choice is clear and stark:  either to serve ourselves or our Lord.  The rich fool made one choice, while the Theotokos made another.
            We follow the Virgin Mary’s example not only when fast, pray, and give generously to the needy in the weeks lead up to Christmas, but also when we are on guard for even the most subtle temptations to place the world before God.  For example, even those who devote their lives to the service of others for relatively little money and social standing can make a false god out of their work.  We can do the same thing even with our families or our devotion to worthwhile projects or activities of any kind.  Especially dangerous is the common temptation to use God for worldly power, as if Christ were somehow useful to us in getting ahead in the world or bringing peace on our terms in any area of life.  Many people in our society need to be careful today not to imagine God in their own image. 
            If we want to enter into the temple with the Theotokos, if we wish to follow her example in becoming a living temple of the Lord, we must be very careful not to confuse even the best things of this life with the Lord Himself.  The problem is not with our many blessings, but with us.  We do not yet have the spiritual strength to discern perfectly how to offer the world to God, how to play our role in sanctifying every dimension of who we are and what we do.  
            That is precisely why we need fasting periods like Advent. If you are like me, “eat, drink, and be merry” is not good advice for how to stay focused on welcoming Jesus Christ more fully into your life.  Just taking it easy usually does not clarify our spiritual vision or increase our strength to turn away from habitual sins that have become second nature to us.  No, we need to wake up.  We need to enter into the temple of God’s holiness in a new way in the coming weeks by giving less time and energy to our usual distractions and more to the things of God.   We need to participate more fully in the peace of the Kingdom by taking active steps to fight our passions and reject ways of acting, speaking, and thinking that simply lead us further into the darkness.   We need to do our best to mend our broken relationships with others, asking for and granting forgiveness to those with whom we have become estranged.
            Unfortunately, our world and society are filled with people who embrace the darkness in one way or the other.  Too often, you and I are among them.  But instead of following the rich fool into eternal despair, let’s come to our sense and follow the Mother of God into eternal joy.  We will do that in the coming weeks by rejecting the lies that we have let take root in our souls about what is most important in life.  Turning away from worldly obsessions and divisions, let us turn to Christ as we prepare to receive Him at Christmas.  The peace that He brought to the world is available to us and to all peoples and nations, if we will only receive Him as His mother did in purity and obedience.  Now is the time to follow the Theotokos into the temple as we get ready to become living temples of the Lord when the incarnate Son of God becomes one of us at His Nativity.  For He alone is our peace, our hope, and our joy.  It’s time to get ready for Him.    

No comments: