Sunday, December 3, 2017

His Light Illumines our Darkness as We Prepare for Christmas: Homily for the 26th Sunday After Pentecost and the 14th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 5:8-19; Luke 18:35-43

It is not hard to find darkness in our world or in our own souls.  Sometimes we may feel as blind as the beggar in today’s gospel reading.  He knew all about darkness and was reduced to sitting by the side of the road and living on whatever people gave him.   His blindness defined his identity and shaped every aspect of his life.  We know his name as Bartimaeus from the parallel account in Mark 10:46-52.

            Somehow, however, this unfortunate man had not given up hope entirely, for he cried out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” when he heard that Christ was passing by.  Others told him to be quiet, perhaps because they thought his situation was hopeless and did not want the Lord to be distracted from more important things.  But he responded by calling out even more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”   Christ heard his pleas and asked what must have seemed like an obvious question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  The man said “Lord, let me receive my sight.”  Then the Savior enabled him to see, saying “your faith has made you well.”  So Bartimaeus followed Him and gave thanks to God.

            As we continue preparing during the Nativity Fast to celebrate our Lord’s birth at Christmas, we all have a lot to learn from this persistent and humble blind beggar.  Because of our sins and passions, the eyes of our souls are not fully clear and receptive to the brilliant light of the glory of God.  In other words, the darkness that we have welcomed into our souls profoundly weakens our ability to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness.  Try as we might, we cannot triumph over the corrupting force of our own spiritual blindness simply by our own resolve.  We need the healing mercy of the Lord to open the eyes of our souls to His light.  We need His grace in order to know and experience Him from the depths of our souls.  In this sense, we are all blind beggars before Him.

            Bartimaeus called out to the Savior as the Jewish Messiah by saying “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And he refused to shut his mouth when others told him to; indeed, he cried out all the more.  His example shows that the path to salvation requires falling before the Lord in humility, acknowledging our inability to heal ourselves as we ask for mercy that we do not deserve or control. We must do so persistently, refusing to become discouraged or to give up when we do not immediately get what we want or when our own thoughts and other people tell us we are simply wasting our time.  That is when we must devote ourselves even more to the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”   That is when we must use the awareness of our brokenness, weakness, and pain to open our hearts to Christ even more in humility.

            Through such struggles, we will gain insight on the state of our souls.  We will see the darkness within us a bit more clearly.  Our usual delusions and distractions will become less vivid as we begin to see the contrast between our own wounds and weaknesses and the healing to which Christ calls us.  That is how we will gain the spiritual clarity to answer His question “What do you want me to do for you?” in a way not driven by the self-centered desire simply to get what we want on our own terms.  That is how we will learn to resist the idolatrous temptation to use God or religion to achieve worldly goals. For the point of regaining our sight is ultimately to come to know and experience the Lord more fully from the depths of our souls by His grace as we grow in holiness.  As those created in the divine image and likeness, nothing else will ever truly satisfy us.   

            As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, doing so requires constant dedication and vigilance in our world of darkness.  Tragically, we all allow its corruptions to take root in our souls in one way or another by taking “part in the unfruitful works of darkness,” instead of recognizing them for what they are and turning away from them.  It is so appealing to make false gods out of money, possessions, pleasure, people, and thinking that our will must always be done.  It is so easy to hate and condemn our enemies, to place our trust in worldly kingdoms of whatever kind, and to become blind to Christ’s presence in those who need our help. It is so hard to turn the other cheek when insulted, to go the extra mile when put upon, and to stay on guard against the temptations that attack us so strongly in our weakest spots.

            Both the trends of our culture and our own passions encourage us simply to welcome the darkness into our souls. Why not simply shut our eyes to the light and give in?  Why not simply surrender to whatever desires or thoughts we have?  Why not accept that that is simply who we are?  Of course, those were the same temptations that St. Paul opposed in Ephesus, by saying “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead and Christ shall give you light.”  He tells us to wake up because, regardless of the particulars, what seems like a pleasant nap in the bed of sin is actually the path to the grave, for death is the wages of sin.  What is at stake is not simply a matter of taking it easy and pleasing ourselves, but of turning away from the light of Christ as we choose the darkness of the tomb over the brilliant light of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

            We must stay focused on the truth of our situation; namely, that the only alternative to never-ending darkness is to follow the path of the blind beggar who persistently and humbly called out for the Lord’s mercy.  Because of his faith, Bartimaeus received his sight.  He did not do the easy thing of accepting his blindness or listening to those who told him to be quiet.  No, he pressed forward in doing all that he could to open his darkened eyes to the light.  That is precisely what we must do every day of our lives, and especially in this Nativity Fast as we prepare ourselves to receive Christ at His birth. For to welcome Him anew into our lives, we must have eyes cleansed of the darkness of sin and able to behold, to the extent that we are able, His divine glory as He becomes one of us for our salvation.  He is born to restore the sight of all of us who have fallen into blindness and become slaves to darkness because of our sins.  The only fitting way to celebrate Christmas is to know and experience Him more fully from the depths of our souls as we grow in holiness.  Otherwise, we will miss the point of the season entirely.

By God’s grace, we will have such a Christmas if, during the weeks of Advent, we refuse to be lulled to sleep by indulgence in our passions and instead follow St. Paul’s guidance to be “filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”  In other words, we must devote ourselves to prayer on a daily basis and keep the words of the Jesus Prayer on our lips and in our hearts.  We must refuse to accept or dwell on thoughts that we know will only blind us to the light, and instead fill our minds with holy things as we open our hearts to God. We must speak and act “as children of light” even when we are sorely tempted to gratify our familiar self-centered desires. We must shut our eyes and ears to entertainment and media that inflame our passions and wed us more closely to the darkness. That obviously includes pornography, but also extends to obsessive watching of the news, athletics, or anything else that fuels anger, hatred, anxiety, or other unhealthy attachments.
            When we stumble and fall back into the darkness, we must cry out all the more like Bartimaeus for the Lord’s mercy as we open ourselves to His light as best we can.  Through our struggles, we will know our dependence upon His healing mercy even more.  We will also find that the only thing we truly want from Him is the restoration of our sight, the cleansing of the eyes of our souls.  We want to know and experience Him as we share more fully in His blessed eternal life. The Savior is born at Christmas to make us radiant with the divine glory as He illumines the darkness of the world and of our souls.  Now is the time to wake up and prepare our hearts for Him.

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