Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 29, 2009
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
On November 29th, 1877, a 30-year-old inventor in New Jersey handed a sketch to Swiss-born machinist John Kruesi and instructed him to build a new machine. Over the course of the next week, Kruesi assembled it according to the instructions, completing it on December 6th. The magazine The Scientific American later printed these words: “In December, 1877, a young man came into the office of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered. The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: ‘Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?’ The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph.”
Though no one probably realized it at the time, with the phonograph’s introduction by Thomas Edison in 1877, something quite fundamental in the world began to change. Prior to 1877, in order to experience the spoken word, you had to be in the speaker’s presence. Likewise, to hear music, you had to be present with the musician. But as sounds began to be recorded and other methods were developed of transmitting sounds and other information without the necessity of being present, a universal means of connection and community in world culture was permanently weakened and, in many cases, severed entirely.
There are now jobs that can be worked without ever meeting one’s co-workers. People like Kanye West and Taylor Swift have careers precisely because their music can be recorded. We can become acquainted with the style and mannerisms of world politicians whom we will never meet. And we can boast of hundreds of “friends” whose only presence for us is a profile photo on Facebook. It is now possible to “attend church” from the comfort of one’s living room while still wearing pajamas. And yet most of us in our culture do not know the people who live right next to us.
What our astonishing advances in technology have allowed us to do is to objectify other people. In general, we no longer can have a relationship with our favorite musicians. Nor do we have any experiential knowledge of the people at the other end of the wires that connect us via the Internet. All of these people and what they do have been turned into products for us to buy and acquire, or, in the case of cable television and the Internet, to rent. Almost all of us are, to one extent or another, immersed in this disincarnate, disconnected world.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this technology. They have Internet access even on the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece. But what this technology does afford us is another means of turning away from what we were created to be: human persons in communion with our God and with our fellow persons. Where this technology becomes diabolical is when we allow it to undermine this communion. The sin is not in the circuit boards and fiber optic cable; it’s in the objectification.
Today’s encounter with Jesus as told by St. Luke in his Gospel describes a man with just such a dedication to objects over communion. This man approaches Jesus and asks Him what it takes to be saved, or, in his words, “to inherit eternal life.” Jesus’ response is a short description of the classic commandments from the Old Testament, and the man responds that he has kept them all even since he was a child. But then the Lord says to him that he still lacks one thing: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” And then Luke tells us that “when the man heard this he became sad, for he was very rich.”
The basic error which is at the root of all sin is a dedication to the creation apart from the Creator. In classic terms, this is idolatry, the worship of anything other than the One True God. Many of us probably saw this idolatry on bold display this past Friday if we went Christmas shopping, when so many people become focused on acquisition of objects that they are rude or even violent toward their fellow human persons. And there have been times when people were trampled to death in the frenzy to take advantage of holiday sales. In this we see a deep dedication to objects rather than mindfulness of our fellow men and women, children of the Father created according to Christ, the image of the invisible God.
The Lord does not condemn the riches of the man who asked Him about eternal life, nor does He condemn our giving gifts to one another to mark holidays. But in this season of frenetic consumerism, we turn our ears to this holy Gospel reading and remember that we are not consumers. We are not machines whose purpose is to acquire and use up objects and one another in a never-ending quest for more.
God’s creation is “very good,” as we read in the Book of Genesis. Its purpose is not to satisfy our urges, however. Rather, this world and everything in it is meant for the purpose of communion. Ultimately, this communion is perfectly realized when bread and wine are offered up on the altar and become the vehicle for divine grace, the means by which we physically touch God and through which He takes up His dwelling within us. This is true for all the holy mysteries, but it is also true in other ways. We can pursue communion through giving sacrificially to those around us in need. We can pursue communion by giving up possessions and food that we do not need in order to free ourselves of distractions from the one thing needful, salvation in Christ.
Creation becomes dangerous for us is when we dedicate it to something other than communion. If we make use of the Internet to avoid real contact with people in the flesh, then it has become a vehicle for our degradation. If we are interested only in music performed by people we will never meet, then we have lost something profound about music’s deep possibilities for humanizing us and binding us together. If we shove other people aside and compete for objects on sale for gift-giving, then we are not only failing to pursue communion, we are launching an outright attack on it.
In all of these images, we see the degradation and isolation of the human person—whether sitting in front of his computer screen or TV, or cut off from the world with the earbuds on his iPod, or vigorously and even viciously on a quest for the latest shopping fad. This is not the image of the person as created by God, enjoying warmth and union with his Creator and his fellow creatures, but rather of the distressed, lonely, and fragmented humanity which we see more and more in our world.
The good news of the Gospel is that Christ has come to offer us the possibility of reconnection. His incarnation as a little Child which we will celebrate in a few weeks is the means by which we may emerge from our isolation and be restored and renewed by the God Whose energy is the only true means of sustaining and satisfying us.
Yet while the Lord offers us the possibility for true communion with Him and with each other, He will not force it upon us against our will. Indeed, what kind of communion would it be if our free will were violated in the process? How could love do that?
So it is incumbent upon us to respond to His invitation, to take His outstretched hand in our own and be drawn into His warm, powerful and loving embrace. We cannot do that so long as we are dedicated to loving the creation more than the Creator. If we wish to know true communion, then it takes setting aside the earthly cares that, especially at this time of year, so define us and threaten to overwhelm us.
While the world parties its way to a holiday it calls “Christmas” but is unrecognizable as such to Christians, finally exhausted sometime on Dec. 26th, Orthodox Christians are quietly and mindfully fasting, almsgiving, praying and preparing to receive Him Who, while a little Child, holds all creation in the palm of His hand. Will you place yourself there, too?
To the incarnate God-man, our Lord Jesus Christ, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.