On the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross
Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 18, 2005
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Preachers should always preach to themselves, that is if they are learning anything. This has never been more true for me than in these last few weeks. I am indebted to many for what I am learning about myself and what I am beginning to see and experience, maybe for the first time. The Bible, Origen, St. John of the Ladder, St. Gregory Palamas, Fr. Meyendorff, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, a couple of my spiritual children and some of you have contributed to this pilgrimage I am on.
Just when I think I have it all figured out, when I think I have arrived at a good understanding of the Orthodox spiritual life, all of sudden I get thrown for a loop. I have to say, like a number of the Desert Fathers did on their death beds, "I am praying that God grant me to make a good beginning." I do not think I have begun to make a good beginning, but I will not be satisfied until I do.
Origen wrote that the image of God lies buried deep within us like in a well choked with debris. Unburying the image by removing the debris is the point of the spiritual life the goal of which is union with God. Now Origen did not get everything right, but here he hit the nail square on the head. The image of God buried within is our true self. Unfortunately, we have been content believing that the debris covering the image is the real us. From this debris we construct an identity, from the muck and the mud of our experience and sense perception we construct a different image and call it "real".
That false image is fragile, defensive, hyper-sensitive and easily offended. It cannot bear scrutiny since exposure will cause it to dissolve like so much mist in the morning sun. It's house rests upon a foundation of sand.
The Holy Fathers and Mothers, the great spiritual writers, declare almost as one that the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit is self-knowledge, that is, coming to know who we really are. Freedom from self-delusion is a gift from God.
The saints, unlike the rest of us lost in self-delusion, cannot be offended. The saints know that Christ is Truth, not they themselves; that Christ defines reality in his person and that real life consists in resting in him. The holy ones have descended with the mind into the heart, repenting of each false layer, until they come at last to the image of God and discover that the image is clothed with light. There they discover many truths such as this one: to be true to oneself it is not possible to hate. The Apostle John writes, "He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still" (I John 2.9). In other words, to justify hatred is a sure sign of self-delusion and darkness.
Spiritual effort (self-denial, or ascesis), writes Clement "is an awakening from the sleep-walking of daily life.enabling the Word (of God) to clear away the silt from the depth of the soul, freeing the spring of living waters. The purpose of ascesis is thus to divest oneself of surplus weight, spiritual fat. It is to dissolve in the waters of baptism, in the water of tears, all the hardness of heart, so that it may become an antenna of infinite sensitivity, infinitely vulnerable to the beauty of the world and to the sufferings of human beings, and to God who is Love, who has conquered the world by the wood of the Cross."
Thomas Merton writes that a tree glorifies God by being a tree. Trees do not have identity crises. They sink their roots deep into the earth for sustenance and water, they spread their branches to the sky becoming a home to all sorts of creatures, they make shade and oxygen for us and bring us joy and beauty. The greatest thing a tree can be is a tree and that is enough. We are called to be ourselves, yes, but what we discover when our true self emerges is that we are called to even greater things, we are called to share the divine life. To become truly ourselves we must transcend our own humanity through a wedding of Divine Grace and our own effort.
Merton continues saying that, "The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our false selves and enter into communion with the Life Who dwells and sings within the very essence of every creature and in the core of our souls." This is the deepest meaning and goal of self-denial. What we are called primarily to deny is the false self, to strip away the layers of ego one by one to uncover the true self, the image of God. When we come to the end at last we will find that the grace of Holy Baptism has already transformed the buried and fallen image and once we find our way to that temple we will discover God.
The Gospel ends today with the hopeful words that "there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come in glory." Immediately following these words comes the description of the Transfiguration when Jesus reveals himself as he truly is to Peter, James and John. Unanimously, the Orthodox writers see this as a fulfillment of that prophecy. The apostles see the Lord's glory external to themselves for this takes place before the Cross, Grave, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost. Now the glory of God dwells within. To see his glory we no longer look outside ourselves, but within. "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you." Gloriously, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they discover this truth. Even more wondrously, the way to this glory is open for all to take.
So, how can we allow ourselves to be satisfied with our lives with such a great call and destiny? The door is wide open, the road stretches beyond the horizon and into eternity. Can we ever say that we understand things as they ought to be understood? St. Paul warns, "If a man thinks he knows anything he does not yet know as he ought to know." When St. Antony asked his circle of disciples to comment on a scripture verse they had just read they all, save one, tried their hand at interpretation. That one who did not reply finally said, "Father, I do not know what it means." St. Antony replied, "Only this one has answered correctly."
Our personal search for the true self is unceasing. This means we must be open to transformation in the deepest self, in our most cherished self-definition. In order to become, as St. Paul puts is, "a living sacrifice wholly acceptable to God" everything must be laid on the altar. We must not be like Ananias Sapphira and attempt to hold on to anything when the Lord asks for all.