2 Timothy 2:1-10; Matthew 6:22-33
There are some who think that the way of Christ is a crutch for the weak, a source of support for wimps, cowards, and losers to make themselves feel better about their wretched condition. Of course, that attitude reflects only the weakness of those who are spiritually blind, who are enslaved to their own lust for power and refusal to show mercy to their neighbors in their suffering. Instead of embracing the darkness by worshiping the false gods of domination and vengeance, faithful Christians open themselves to the divine strength that can make even our most bitter challenges points of entry into the blessedness of the Kingdom.
It should go without saying that we all know pain, sorrow, and the lack of peace all too well. Terrorist attacks in our own country and abroad, wars seemingly without end, murder and other forms of violence and injustice, racial and political strife, the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere who are persecuted for their faith and forced to leave their homelands, our own loss of loved ones, and other difficult personal problems tempt us today to allow darkness to take over souls. It is easy and often appealing to fill our hearts with hatred, fear, and despair by accepting the lie that we will find salvation by damning others, returning evil for evil, and abandoning hope. But to do so would be to turn away from the victory over death and sin that Christ accomplished through His cross and empty tomb. It is also to repudiate the transforming power of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost, Whose fruits are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” As St. Paul wrote, “Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:22-24)
In order to crucify our corruption and open the eyes of our souls to the brilliant light of Christ in the midst of all the temptations that beset us, we must have the dogged determination of soldiers, athletes, and farmers. St. Paul used those examples with St. Timothy because they are all very demanding undertakings that require daily discipline, sacrifice, and perseverance. No one can succeed in those vocations by taking it easy, giving in to self-centered desires, or giving up out of fear. He told Timothy to “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” That is not because it is somehow pleasing to God for us to suffer, but because living a faithful Christian life requires us to struggle for the healing of our souls and in the service of our neighbors, especially as we resist the temptations that threaten to consume us. There will be some pain involved, for we must take up our crosses in obedience to the way of our Lord. Our faith requires pressing on in faithfulness each day, regardless of the cost.
Today we commemorate St. Joseph of Damascus, a priest who was martyred during anti-Christian riots in 1860. In the midst of violent attacks by mobs that killed 2,500 people, he jumped from rooftop to rooftop in order to hear confessions and serve Communion to elderly and sick people who could not leave their homes. He recounted to them the lives of the martyrs in preparation for what was to come. After the cathedral where Christians had gathered was burned with those trapped inside perishing, St. Joseph roamed the streets looking for others to whom he could minister. He consumed what remained of the Lord’s Body and Blood before a mob hacked him to death with axes, after which his body was dragged through the streets and thrown in the city dump.
No doubt, the vicious persecutors felt powerful on that day, but they were actually the weakest of all, enslaved to their passions and totally blind to the basic humanity of their neighbors, not to mention to the merciful way of the Lord. Christ said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” The example of St. .Joseph of Damascus shines in brilliant contrast to the darkened souls who rushed to murder him and so many others. He did not try to run away from certain death or think only of himself or his family. He “share[d] in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” as he ministered as best he could to His people. He, like all the martyrs, shines with light as an icon of the great strength that the Lord provides to sustain us through even the greatest challenges of life, even through death itself.
Most Christians do not become martyrs in the sense of literally being killed for their faith. Christ calls us all, however, to die to our tendency to embrace the darkness of sin and passion instead of His holy light. We may all do that in response to the seemingly small challenges and temptations that we face daily. For whether we acknowledge it or not, we face every day of our lives a more subtle version of the test faced by the martyrs. Namely, will we refuse to abandon our Lord? As the Savior said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Christ tells us here that worshipping money, wealth, and possessions is a form of idolatry that turns us away from serving Him. No, that is not a temptation only felt by extremely wealthy people, for He then says “do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink; nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not the soul more than food, and the body more than clothing?” We worship a false god whenever our souls are so darkened that we no longer trust in the Lord’s mercy to sustain us through life, but instead become obsessed with establishing and protecting ourselves on our own terms and by our own methods. That is not a path to peace, but only to worry and fear. As the Lord taught, “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his stature?” He is the One Who has conquered death, but we still worry as though everything were up to us, as though we could solve all our problems and those of our families and the world. That is simply an illusion that appeals to us because the eyes of our souls are not yet fully illumined with the light of Christ. And giving in to it leads only to idolatry, anxiety, and disappointment.
Christ said, “[D]o not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” None of us can predict or control fully what will happen in the world, our families, or our own lives. But we do know that if we purify our hearts and souls with the dogged determination of soldiers, athletes, and farmers, we will gain the spiritual clarity and strength that are necessary to serve Christ through whatever challenges we and our loved ones will face. We will avoid the appealing temptation to surrender in weakness to our passions, anxieties, and fears when we mindfully reject the thoughts and desires that encourage us to place our commitment to anyone or anything before our commitment to the Lord. When we look to St. Joseph of Damascus and all the martyrs, we will remember that the path we follow is not one of responding in kind to those who threaten us or being overwhelmed by fear, but instead one of courageously seeing first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness. That is how, even in the midst of all the darkness that surrounds us, we may become radiant with the divine glory and filled with holy light as a sign of the salvation of the world.