On Meatfare Sunday
Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 11, 2007
There was a remarkable and fiery lay preacher who lived in France in the late nineteenth century by the name of Leon Bloy. He railed against the wholesale rejection of God in French society of his day and the complacency of the Christian believers who remained. His style was often offensive but it mirrored his intense spiritual life which was, to many, equally offensive. He was a man who lived as he believed and that is always disconcerting.
I discovered a quote of his that points to the meaning of this Sunday well. It is blunt and to the point so I invite you to embrace and take it personally.
“Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.” With all due respect, that is a grave insult to pigs, but the point is clear. Jesus calls us to live extraordinary, no, even more, divine lives and most do not live or even think in such a way. An authentic Christian life is one of extraordinary courage, unlimited self-sacrifice and absolute transcendence. The very life of Christ becomes incarnate in every molecule of a Christian’s being.
There was a woman who died in Central America not long ago. I do not know much about her, even what country or city she lived in, but when by chance she discovered families scavenging through garbage dumps for their sustenance beginning at the wee hour of 4:00 am she determined to live her life among them. This “saint of the garbage dumps” actually embraced these “poorest of the poor” with all her heart, soul, mind and strength. In our church and wherever Christ is honored is preached this message, “Sell all that you have…and come follow me.” Yes, this message is for all of us.
Our faith is not “other-worldly.” “Other-worldly” means living in a way that is focused on the future. Orthodoxy is definitely not like that. We are very hands on. When we say “Christ is in our midst” we actually believe it to be so. To live an Orthodox Christian life is to live each moment believing it with all our hearts.
We value this world because God made it and called it good. We value human life because God created it and called it “very good.” What more do we need to know?
Philip Sherrard writes that Orthodoxy teaches that the whole creation is filled with God’s very life and being,” so “consequently there can be no true love of God that doesn’t embrace every aspect of creation.”
This world and everything and everyone in it is worthy of our love. The question is: how do we begin to follow Christ and take up this courageous life of love? That is, to love one another and all things “as Christ loved us.” The courage of such people as our “saint of the garbage dumps” cannot come out of a vacuum.
First we must come to be able to see the presence of God in all things. For this to be our hearts and minds must first be purified and transformed – we must begin to think in a new way. Since sin is born in the mind that is where our attention must be brought to bear. We must begin to “think…such things as are well pleasing to God,” as the Divine Liturgy says, before we can actually do them and we cannot do that unless we examine what we are thinking moment by moment. Once we see it, then we can change it. By looking honestly at our thoughts we can, as St. Paul writes, “put on the mind of Christ” by choosing to meditate on what is good, preeminent among them God, who is the source of all good things and by turning aside from evil thoughts and embracing good thoughts. “As we think, so shall we live.” The mind purified and divinized is “the mind of Christ.”
So we need to train our minds as athletes train their minds and bodies in order to nurture and expand our own capacity for goodness and compassion. This image comes from St. Paul. How else can we be ready to answer the opportunity for service when we happen upon it, like the “garbage dump saint” and so many others like her? The great Orthodox ascetic Mother Gavrilia of India teaches that we must be ever mindful keeping our hearts and minds in a state readiness.
Here is a spiritual exercise I learned for nurturing and expanding compassion. When we pray we can begin spending some moments praying for ourselves. It is a good and necessary place to start. “Lord, have mercy on me!” Then to expand further we can begin to pray for those near and dear to us. “Lord, have mercy on my family and my friends.” But, of course, it is good to do so individually and by name. Then we can expand our prayers to people who fit into a neutral category, those to whom we may not feel a particular special attraction and those we see that we may not even know. “Lord, have mercy on this person and that person.” Then it gets harder. We continue to expand our circle of compassion to include people we do not like and pray for them by name. Who knows? Today it may include our souse or our children! Whatever! Finally, we expand our prayer to include groups of people, countries, the planet and the whole universe. Slowly but surely the twinges of discomfort and doubt inside diminish as we practice and we find our hearts growing larger and our vision for compassion becoming sharper. We discover slowly that the ability to love is actually unlimited for we are made in God’s image. We can transform our snouts and curly tails.
Such interior work is the “yeast in the loaf” that imperceptibly rises to make bread. This humble work is what the Lord referred when he said that “if we are faithful in small things” God will later bring us even greater opportunities. Mother Gavrilia once asked the Angels, “Where does God want me to be?” She heard this answer, “Only one thing is important: the quality and quantity of the Love you give to all – to all, without discrimination.We need to be earnest in making a good beginning.