40 The Lamp of the Body - June 17, 2007

Romans 5:1-10

Matthew 6:22-33


To forestall certain health issues that are indicated in my family history, I work out regularly at a local Y. In the middle of the workout floor is a circle of TV’s so that one can view a TV from wherever one stands on the workout floor. I alternate between bemusement and disgust over what I see on those TV screens: a total preoccupation, even in the so-called news programs, with trivial and inconsequential things and a subservient pandering to a fascination for what is crass and crude. Even truly newsworthy events are trivialized into sound-bytes of entertainment packages.

The Church teaches us that as a consequence of the Fall, we have inherited a spiritually genetic predisposition, if you will, to fall under the spell of appearances, to be enthralled with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.[1] As we grow, it seems that the treasure of our heart “defaults” not to the beauty of the divine, but to what looks good to the eyes of the flesh. If we do not take steps to forestall this spiritually genetic predisposition, our heart defaults to the desire to be admired for our pleasing appearance or aspect. If left untreated, this spiritually genetic condition turns us into empty shells. We become all about form, all about appearances. Substance has no interest for us. Our mind cannot focus on, indeed has no interest in those perennial existential questions that you would think would grip us by their very nature: who am I; where did I come from; where will I go when I die?

“The lamp of the body is the eye,” says the Savior. I think it noteworthy that he speaks of one eye, not two. He prefaces his words about the eye by saying, where your treasure is there will your heart be also. Then, he follows his words about the eye by saying, no man can serve two masters; for, the one he will hate and the other he will love. The one he will cling to, the other he will despise.

It comes out very clearly to me that the eye that is the lamp of the body is the desire of our heart. We are full of light if our desire is wholly focused on one thing, and only if that one “thing” is God. “You cannot serve God and the values of the world [mammon],” the Lord says. If the eye of your desire is not focused on God, it loses its integrity, its wholeness, and it becomes very dark.

Studying how our heart develops as we grow up, is it not clear that our desire is not for God but for the delightful things of the world? All the more significant, then, is it that baptism is called “Holy Illumination.” At our baptism, the light of God pierced the darkness of our heart’s desire, and in the soil of our heart was planted the seed of the Holy Spirit, waiting to be nourished by the yearning of our heart’s desire so that it could grow like the mustard tree from a tiny seed into a great tree – the Tree of Life. Having received the light of God into our hearts through our baptism, it is critical for us to submit to our Mother, the Church, to learn from her the art of growing that seed.

Now, it says in Genesis that when Eve looked on the tree of good and evil, she saw that it was a delight to the eyes and she desired it.[2] Following from the Lord’s words this morning about the one eye that is the lamp of the body, one takes special note that Genesis says that the tree was a delight to the eyes (plural). We could take this to mean that already, Eve’s desire was beginning to lose its natural integrity and wholeness and was beginning to split up, for she was looking away from God and falling in love with that tree. You can see her fascination for that tree giving birth in her heart to a certain contempt for the Lord’s command not to eat from it. She loses her fear of God. His warning that on the day you eat of it you will surely die is fast losing its hold on her. It seems to be fading rapidly from her memory. She is becoming forgetful and ignorant of God. She is turning away from the light of God and becoming dark.

I can see this very thing happening to me when I allow the eye of my desire to focus on the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life. The Lord says to us in this morning’s Gospel what he in effect said to Adam and Eve: “You cannot love God and the world at the same time; for the one you will love and the other you will despise. You cannot eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil; for on that day you will surely die. Love of God fills you with light. Love of the world, of the forbidden tree, fills you with darkness.” But when I’m under the spell of desire for the delightful appearance of the forbidden fruit, I have no interest in the Lord’s words; I have no love for them. I despise them. I find also that I start to lose interest in those existential questions of who I am and where I am going, the questions whose answer I should be desiring with all my heart, because they have to do with what happens to me when I die.

One of the reasons, however, that I may dismiss the Lord’s words is because, in my darkness, they sound impractical and out of touch with my daily reality. I mean, what does he mean that we shouldn’t worry about what we will eat or wear? Am I really supposed to believe that the groceries will fall down from the sky if I sit around in prayer all day and not work for a living? Is it wrong when I stand in front of my closet and contemplate my wardrobe for the day? Is the Lord telling me that I should be cultivating the disheveled look? I think if we consider more closely what exactly this world is that we are to hate in order to love God as we should that the spiritual meaning of the Lord’s command not to worry about what we will eat or wear will come into view and show itself to be profoundly relevant to our everyday lives.

In fact, when Jesus says we cannot love God and mammon – meaning the riches and values of the world – I don’t think he is talking about the world that he made: the world we encounter in the wonder of how our bodies work, the majesty and beauty of the mountains, forests, lakes and streams, the joy and color of the passing seasons. I think this because God commands us in the beginning to take care of the world he made;[3] in other words, to love it. No, I think the world Jesus commands us to hate is the world that Eve was creating from out of her heart’s desire for that tree in opposition to the command of God.

It is the world that you and I create in our own mind and heart from our desire to be like God in the way that Adam and Eve did: outside the commandment of God; in other words, when we desire to be like God on our own, apart from God. You can see this genetic disease becoming fully active at some point near the beginning of our teenage years, when we become consumed with the desire to be popular and good-looking. It continues into our adult life when it morphs into the drive to be successful as the world defines success, i.e. to be rich and famous, influential and powerful. In short, this spiritually genetic disease that we have inherited from Adam and Eve has attacked that spiritual gene implanted in us by God (which makes us by nature desire to be like God – for, he created us in his image precisely so that we could grow into his likeness) and has rendered it into a defective gene that makes us prone to the desire to be like God apart from God; in other words to be ourselves a God or a Goddess. Theologically, we call this defective gene self-love. It clouds our vision, it darkens our mind, so that everything we do, say, and think is governed by vanity, conceit, arrogance and pride. This is the world that Eve was giving her heart’s desire to. It’s the world that we give ourselves to when we are wishing to be the center of attention, or the one everyone looks up to, or the one most regarded or respected in a group; when we expect our way, our opinion, our ideas to carry the field. This is the world I think God is telling us we must hate if we are to love him as we should in order to be filled with light and not darkness.

It is a world of fantasy. It is empty. It has no real existence because it is spun from the treasury of our own vanity. Vanity means emptiness. You could say that we exist in this world that God made as though in a fog of vanity. We exist in this world that God made, but we don’t live in it. We live rather in the fantasy world we have spun from the wisps of our own vanity. Our inner eye has been split into two or more eyes. And, it has become darkened because our desire has been split off from the God who dwells in light unapproachable and turned to focus on this inner fantasy world that we have made from out of the dark nothingness of our own vanity. We are each of us living in our own little world. We’re walking around on this earth that God made, each one of us enclosed in our own little world as in so many opaque bubbles. Since this world of our own is rooted in the emptiness of our own vain imaginings, it doesn’t really exist. We have in effect gone back into the darkness of the nothingness from which God brought us to life. This is the darkness that falls upon us when the eye of our heart’s desire turns away from God. It’s not the ordinary darkness of a cloudy day caused by the absence of the sun. It’s a primordial, spiritual darkness caused by the absence of God. This is what makes it evil; God is not in it.

Now we can read the Lord’s words to us this morning with a more illumined eye of understanding. Christ is not saying that our desire to be somebody who is respectable and lovable is wrong and that it should be extinguished. For, God is pre-eminently a Somebody who is respectable and lovable; and we are created in God’s image in order to be like God. The Lord is simply bringing to our “remembrance” that in order to be the somebody that we naturally desire to be, we need to give our heart’s desire to the real world that God made by focusing the eye of our heart on the commandments of God. This real world is the world that he made in the primordial light of the Church, the first Church, the spiritual one, that was from the beginning before sun and moon.[4] This world of the Church is the world that is illumined by Him who is the Light of the world, in whose Light is the Life of God’s Holy Spirit and that illumines everyone who comes into this real world of the Church.[5] 

What the Lord says about the birds of the air that are fed by God, and the lilies of the field that neither sow nor reap and yet are arrayed in robes more glorious than Solomon now comes to light as a lesson teaching us that when we give our heart’s desire to the commandments of God, we grow in the light of his bride, the Church, and in the life of his Spirit[6] virtually without effort. In other words, we don’t have to worry about making ourselves grow in the eternal life of God. We just grow. Or rather, God himself clothes us with the baptismal garment of light, and he gives us to eat and drink of his Heavenly Spirit in the Holy Eucharist of the Church, the real world that he made. All we have to do be fed and clothed in this real world of the Church is to answer the call of the Spirit and his Bride, the Church, to “Come” into the light and drink the living waters that flow from the life-giving fountain of his holy body, the Church. We “come and drink” by practicing Christ’s commandments and partaking of the divine nature in Holy Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist is the “medicine of immortality” that works on that defective gene we have inherited from Adam and Eve. Practicing Christ’s commandments is like working out at the gym to forestall the health issues of one’s family history. When we practice Christ’s commandments and drink the “medicine of immortality,” we fight against that defective gene we’ve inherited from Adam and Eve that makes us prone to fall under the spell of what looks good, of appearances; for, by practicing Christ’s commandments and by partaking of his holy body and blood in the sacraments of the Church, we are going beyond the mere appearance of faith and into its substance – which is the Light of Christ and the Life of his Holy Spirit that is in him.[7] As St Maximus writes somewhere: “Faith rightly expressed is the practice of Christ’s commandments.” And St Paul tells us in his epistle this morning that it is through faith – i.e. through the practice of Christ’s commandments – that we have access in the grace of Christ in which we stand;[8] that is to say, through the practice of Christ’s commandments we have access to the resurrection of Christ by which we have been raised from out of the darkness of meaninglessness and emptiness and into the marvelous light of God’s heavenly Kingdom. Standing in the light of Christ’s holy resurrection – i.e., practicing his commandments – we grow in the Spirit in the way that St Paul describes to us this morning: our afflictions in this life no longer make to grow in us dark despair but an illumining joy. For, in the light of the Spirit, we begin to understand from our own experience that these afflictions are making to grow in us a holy perseverance that in turn makes to grow in us a holy steadfastness, that in turn produces a fragrant flower of sacred hope. It clothes us with a garment of light as with holy joy because we are experiencing the attainment of what our heart naturally desires: an opening up of the heart like the blossoming of the lilies of the field onto the light of God’s love that is poured out richly in our hearts like the rays of the sun through the Holy Spirit that was given to us in our baptism.

We are coming to the end of the liturgical season. The Dormition of the Theotokos draws near. You see how the Church in this liturgical season is turning the focus of our inner eye on the saints of the Church, pre-eminent among whom is the Theotokos. With these lessons she is now giving us since Pentecost, she is teaching us how each one of us can forestall the spiritual health issues of our family history and grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ to become the saint that each one of us is meant to be. Do not extinguish your desire. Redirect its focus on the light of God. Do not hate the world God made. Hate the world we have made from our own vanity. Give your desire to God and become who you truly are, realize your natural destiny to become a child of light. Transfigure your death into a resting in Christ as one of the saints in whom Christ rests. Amen.

[1] I Jn 2:15-17

[2] Gn 3:6

[3] Gn 1:26-28; 2:15

[4] Cf. the sermon for June 10, 2007 and 2 Clement 14.

[5] Jn 1:5ff.

[6] Cf. Rev 22:17

[7] Jn 1:4

[8] Rm 5:2.