Visiting New York City always makes me wonder how people who are not fabulously wealthy can actually live there. Everything seems very expensive and just getting around must be complicated and stressful with so many people in such a relatively small area. In such a setting, I imagine that it is easy to be so focused on daily practical matters that deeper spiritual concerns get ignored, for people have only so much time and energy. Of course, the same is true in Abilene or even out in the country. We can so easily turn our attention away from God by fixating on the daily grind, no matter where we live.
As we begin this season of Advent, of the Nativity Fast that prepares us to welcome Christ at Christmas, we all need to be on guard against being so distracted by worldly cares that we fail to prepare ourselves to become living temples of the Lord when we receive the good news of the Incarnation. Later this week, we commemorate the most powerful example of what it means to welcome the Savior into our lives when we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. The elderly Joachim and Anna had miraculously conceived a child in old age as answer to their prayers. They dedicated her to God and took her to live in the Temple at the age of three. The Virgin Mary’s life was not focused on laying up treasures for herself, indulging in passing pleasures, or otherwise being distracted. Instead, she chose the one thing needful: hearing and obeying the word of God. Indeed, she accepted personally into her own life in a totally unique way the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. And through her pure obedience, the Savior has come to us all.
The Theotokos is certainly entirely different from the rich fool in today’s gospel lesson. His life revolved around his wealth, around his business; and when he had acquired enough to meet his needs, he was ready to eat, drink, and be merry. His life was totally dedicated to money and pleasure; that was all he cared about. And when his soul was required of him, he had nothing of eternal significance, for he apparently loved neither God nor his neighbors.
We must remember that the Lord did not create us in the divine image and likeness for a life dominated by worldly ambition or unrestrained self-indulgence; instead, He wants us to become ever more like Him in holiness. But if we refuse to do that and try to find peace in worldly accomplishments and satisfying every self-centered inclination, we will become less than human. We will become slaves to our desires and pleasures, which soon become addictions, and which will soon make us miserable and separate us even from those we love most in this life. How easy it is for people to gain the whole world and lose their souls.
Of course, money, food, drink, comfort, wealth, relationships, and other blessings have their place in life, but they are not to become what life is about. If we make them false gods, we will destroy ourselves and lose them also because only God is God. No part of creation finds peace or fulfillment unless it is offered to Him for blessing in accordance with His purposes for it. And that includes you and me. There is no path to the richness of the Kingdom apart from obedience. At the end of the day, our choice is clear and stark: either to serve ourselves or our Lord. The rich fool made one choice, while the Theotokos made another.
We follow the Virgin Mary’s example not only when fast, pray, and give generously to the needy in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but also when we are on guard for even the most subtle temptations to place the world before God. For example, even those who devote their lives to the service of others for little money and social standing can make a false god out of their work. We can do the same thing even with our families or our devotion to worthwhile projects or activities of any kind. Especially dangerous is the common temptation to use God for worldly power, as if Christ were somehow useful to us in getting what we want and putting down others. We all need to be very careful not make God in own image, for that is simply idolatry as much as would be worshiping a golden calf.
If we want to enter into the Temple with the Theotokos, if we wish to follow her example in becoming a living temple of the Lord, we must be very careful not to confuse even the best things of this life with the Lord Himself. The problem is not with our many blessings, but with us. We do not yet have the spiritual strength to discern perfectly how to offer the world to God, how to play our role in sanctifying every dimension of who we are and what we do.
Unfortunately, none of can say with the perfect spiritual clarity of St. Paul that “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…” St. Paul reminded the Galatians that observance of the Jewish law did not make them right with God, for it is only by faith in our Savior’s victory over sin and death that we participate fully in the joy of His resurrection. We must die to sin and corruption in all the forms that they take in our lives. We must become our true selves by living a life of participation in the divine nature such that His life is present and active through ours.
That is precisely why we need fasting periods like Advent. If you are like me, it is usually more appealing to stay in the same old sinful ruts than to take the challenging path to holiness. Like the rich fool, we would prefer to rest content right where we are on our own terms. The problem, of course, is that “eat, drink, and be merry” is not good advice for how to grow in faithfulness to Jesus Christ or to welcome Him more fully into our lives. Just taking it easy usually does not clarify our spiritual vision or increase our strength to turn away from habitual sins that have become second nature to us. No, we need to wake up. We need to enter into the temple of God’s holiness in a new way in the coming weeks by giving less time and energy to our usual distractions and more to the things of God. We need to participate more fully in the peace of the Kingdom by taking active steps to fight our passions and reject ways of acting, speaking, and thinking that simply lead us further into our delusions. We need to do our best to mend our broken relationships with others, asking for and granting forgiveness to those with whom we have become estranged.
Unfortunately, our world and society are filled with people who embrace the darkness in one way or the other. Too often, you and I are among them. It is so easy to be shaped by what is popular, easy, and convenient in our culture. It is so appealing to be lulled into a spiritual and moral slumber by everything from entertainment to our family responsibilities, from our work to our hobbies to our health. Even if we have no money at all, we may follow the rich fool into eternal despair by making the measure of our lives something other than the Lord and His Kingdom. Anything that distracts us from attending to the most fundamental questions of loving God and neighbor is potentially dangerous and may become a road block to our participation in the life of our Lord, both now and for eternity.
So it is time to come to our senses and follow the Mother of God into eternal joy. We will do that in the coming weeks by rejecting the lies that we have let take root in our souls about what is most important in life. Turning away from worldly obsessions and distractions, let us turn to Christ as we prepare to receive Him at Christmas. The peace that He brought to the world is available to us, if we will only receive Him as His mother did in purity and obedience. Now is the time to follow the Theotokos into the Temple as we get ready to become living temples of the Lord when the incarnate Son of God becomes one of us at His Nativity. For He alone is our peace, our hope, and our joy. It is time to get ready for Him and to turn away from everything in our lives that is not holy, pure, and blessed.