|08 - St Demetrius, Oct 26, 2008|
II Timothy 2:1-10
I’d like to take today’s commemoration of St Demetrius as an occasion to reflect on one of the striking features in the witness of the saints, especially the martyrs. That is how strong and steadfast they were in their suffering, choosing to endure unspeakable agony of torture and cruelty over renunciation of their faith in Christ. Clearly, the Lord Jesus Christ for them was not a religious idea but a concrete reality even more real for them than the concrete reality of their suffering.
What is that reality of Jesus Christ? And how did the saints discover Christ as so much more real than their suffering that they preferred suffering to renouncing Christ?
The reality of the world is sickness, suffering and death. We sin out of our fear of pain and suffering and destruction. The reality of Jesus Christ is divine healing of our soul and body. It is the ineffable sweetness, joy and peace of being touched by divine grace and embraced by divine love whose power to dissolve our fear, illumine our darkness, and heal us in soul and body tells us that Christ is indeed risen from the dead, and that he has destroyed death by his death.
Jesus Christ is divine grace and love. The grace and love of Jesus Christ are not religious ideas but concrete realities because the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. When God the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, divine grace and love became flesh and dwelt among us. Divine grace and love became the concrete reality, the divine principle of the world. Becoming flesh, Christ chose also to be subject to death like we are. But his death was life-creating because in his death, death did not swallow his divine grace and love; his divine grace and love swallowed death. His divine grace and love are now united even to our death. Those who die in Christ discover that death does not swallow the goodness of the image of God in which they were made; the image in which they were made, united in the flesh to the Image of God who is Christ, swallows death in the grace and love of Christ. Christ Jesus is not a concrete reality; he is the concrete reality of the world because he became flesh and because he died and rose again. In his divine Person, and in the mystery of his Incarnation, his Virgin Birth, his Passion and his Holy Resurrection, he is the foundation of the world. And as the foundation of the world, he is the reality of the world; and as the reality of the world, he is more real than the world itself.
He shines in the gloom of this earthly life filling it with meaning. He shines in the darkness of death filling it with hope.
The Word of God came into the world and scattered the words of his teaching like a sower sowing his seed in the earth. But the Word of God is Light from Light, true God from true God. His words are not the sounds of ideas coming from the wisdom of human opinion. They are particles of divine uncreated light coming forth from the Word of God by whom all things were made. His words are therefore the creative principles, the life-creating seeds of reality that are more real than the world itself because it is these words coming forth from Christ, the Word of God, that make the world both visible and invisible to be real, concretely real.
The saints are those sinners sitting in darkness who heard the words of God and kept them, treasuring them in their mind, their hearts and in their flesh. They followed those words to their source, Christ the Word of God, and united themselves to Him by keeping his words. In uniting themselves to Christ they united themselves to Him Who Is the reality of all things and whose words make the world real. In Christ, they found real meaning, they found the real reality of the world, they found the uncreated light of God that is the inner uncreated principle of the world, they found that divine grace and truth that became flesh and that is now dwelling among us in the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, they found the divine uncreated life of God’s Holy Spirit that illumines the darkness to reveal it as the passageway into the concrete reality of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.
It was their union with this reality of Christ that gave the saints the strength and the grace to remain steadfast in the face of suffering and death. Death could hold them in bondage through fear no longer, for it no longer had any power over them. In Christ, they had already died to the world; and in Christ, they had already been raised up, even now, in the flesh into the reality of Christ’s divine grace and love that had become flesh in the mystery of his Incarnation. The divine grace and love of Christ was the concrete reality of their own flesh and blood. The life they were living in the flesh was no longer the life of this world but the divine, uncreated life of Christ, that divine life of grace and love that has filled this life with meaning, and death with hope, because God the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and in his holy Passion, he has destroyed death by death and given life to those in the tombs.
In the comfort and relative wealth that we enjoy, we tend to see Jesus Christ not as the concrete living reality of our life but as a religious idea we hold that distinguishes us from others who hold different ideas. We call ourselves Christians but we live in the world as worldly people. Our Christian Faith is not the divine life of God that is as different from the life of the world as light is from darkness or as love is from hate or as grace is to savagery; it is simply the life of the world somewhat modified by a distinctive set of religious beliefs and ideas. And so for us, Jesus Christ is not a concrete reality but a religious idea belief in whom does no more than to modify our behavior somewhat and perhaps, in our vanity and conceit, to ensure us a seat in the amphitheatre of heaven. No wonder our Christianity is so bland and boring, dry and lifeless. It is not Faith but religious sentimentality or a dry scholasticism that dissipates like smoke as soon as it encounters the real temptations of the flesh, or the real anxieties of the soul, or the sufferings and hardships of life in this world.
This brings us to our second question: how do we discover the grace and love of Jesus Christ as did the saints: as a living concrete reality of healing, whose divine grace and love is more real, more vivid, more immediate to us than the reality of the world’s troubles and suffering?
The Lord himself tells us in this morning’s Gospel, and St Paul in his letter to Timothy echoes him. The Lord says: “These things I have said to you that my joy might remain in you and that your joy might be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The joy of Christ has already been sown in our humanity. It was sown in our humanity when he united himself to our humanity in the mystery of his Incarnation. The joy of Christ has even been sown in the grave. It was sown in the grave when he united himself to the Cross and submitted to death, filling hell with the divine uncreated light of his grace and love. For us, it is now only a question of finding this divine joy that is already within us, already sown in the soil of our own human nature.
We find it as we repent; as we turn away from the love of the world, and as we turn toward the love of God that shines forth from his Holy Church. We find that love as we take up the Cross of loving each other as Christ has loved us. Note that we love each other as Christ has loved us. We must love in the way of Christ, not in the way of man. But to love in the way of Christ and not in the way of man means the ascetic discipline of unceasing prayer and fasting. The ascetic life of the Christian is not the life of ease and comfort but the life of the soldier, as St Paul says; and the soldier, says St Paul, does not entangle himself with the affairs of this life so that he may please him who chose him as a soldier. The Christian chooses instead to endure hardness as a good soldier of Christ.
The hardness St Paul refers to is the hardness of renouncing self-love and its many manifestations: love of the flesh, love of pleasure, love of money. These worldly loves are the affairs of this life that the good soldier of Christ does not get entangled in. He turns away from them; he fasts from them and chooses instead to pursue the love of Christ. And that is through prayer: both spoken prayer in one’s closet, and prayer acted out in deeds of charity and mercy towards one’s neighbor, even one’s enemy.
This is in brief how one makes oneself strong in the grace that is in Jesus so that one can begin to live like the saints: in the fear not of death but in the fear of God; in the faith and love not of the world but of God. This is the hard, ascetic life of the cross in which one discovers in one’s own flesh and blood, in one’s own everyday life, the divine healing of soul and body that Jesus bestows by his divine grace as the concrete, living reality of one’s life in this world, and in the world to come. Through these ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting we act on our desire to open our hearts to Christ not just in sentimental, wishful thinking but in the hard, concrete reality of ascetic discipline by which we voluntarily take up our cross and deny ourselves to follow Christ in the love of Christ. This is how the grace and love of God become our very life instead of the empty life of the world. This is how we discover the joy of Christ even if we find ourselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death. This is how we find that grace and love of Christ in which we fear no evil, for we know as the concrete reality of our life that Christ God is with us. Christ himself promises us in this morning’s Gospel that he will send to his friends, to those who keep his commandments the Comforter, the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit himself bears witness to Christ so that we are made witness to the concrete reality that Christ has been with us from the beginning. We were never alone and we never will be alone, if we will unite ourselves to Christ by keeping his commandments of divine grace and love. Amen.