On Becoming a Holy Temple like the Theotokos: Homily for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:1-7

Luke 12: 16-21

            It is sadly ironic that the time of year leading to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ has become for many a time of great distraction from the spiritual life.   Shopping, decorating, parties, and social gatherings of various kinds—and figuring out how to pay for them– so easily turn our attention away from the blessed opportunity given us in the weeks of Advent.  There is nothing wrong with any of these activities, but they often take on a life of their own and take precedence over true spiritual preparation for the great feast of Christ’s birth in the flesh.  By seeking to grow in holiness through the disciplines of the Nativity Fast, we do something very strange in a culture that “is not rich toward God.”

Of course, being distracted by worldly cares is nothing new.  That was the problem of the man in the parable from today’s gospel lesson, for he saw the meaning of his life simply in his material possessions.  When he thought that he had enough to sustain him for a long time, he decided to relax and indulge himself in pleasure:  eat, drink, and be merry.  But that night God required his soul and he lost everything, including himself.  As Christ said, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

The tragic terrorist attacks, wars, and humanitarian disasters that have been going on for years in the Middle East and elsewhere should remind us all that true security and salvation are not found in the wealth, power, or politics of this world.  No earthly regime is capable of ushering in a realm of perfection, and even the strongest and most developed nations and societies are not immune from struggles as old as Cain and Abel.  Wealth and power never have and never will conquer sin and death, and we must refuse to allow worldly agendas of any kind to distract us from finding the meaning and purpose of our lives in our Lord, God, and Savior  Jesus Christ, Whose Kingdom is not of this world.  To do anything else is to follow a path that leads only to despair, as the rich fool in today’s parable discovered.

Even as we are horrified by the grave problems of the world and want all the nations to protect the innocent, uphold justice, and establish a lasting peace, we must remember that what we as Orthodox Christians have to offer the world is not an opinion or an agenda about anything, but most fundamentally our example of a holy life in union with Christ.  St. Paul urged the Ephesians “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another with love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  We must treat one another, and indeed everyone with whom we come in contact, in ways that show visibly what our Lord’s salvation means for a world in which people so easily hate, fear, and harm one another.  We must provide an example in our own lives that shines like a candle in the darkness, drawing others to a way of life worth living and dying for.  If we do not, why should anyone care what we have to say?  If we do not, can we really proclaim with integrity anything different from what is said by the rich and powerful fools of the world who ultimately worship themselves?

Yesterday, we began celebrating the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, which commemorates the three-year-old Virgin Mary being brought there by her parents Sts. Joachim and Anna.  She entered the Holy of Holies and grew up in the Temple in prayer and purity as she prepared to become the living temple of the Lord by accepting Christ into her life in a unique way as the Theotokos, the Mother of God.  This feast calls us to follow her blessed example by intentionally preparing to welcome the Lord into our lives at Christmas.  Because of His birth as the God-Man, as the Second Adam, we are all able to become His living temples by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Doing so requires, however, that we follow the example of the Mother of God, who opened her entire life to Him.  Temples are places of offering and sacrifice, and who offered and sacrificed herself more to the Lord than His Mother?  Imagine her courage in freely consenting to the message from the Archangel Gabriel that God had chosen her for this unique role and ministry.  She was prepared to accept that unbelievable challenge by those years in the temple in which she laid aside distractions in order to focus on the one thing needful of hearing and obeying the word of the Lord.  The calling of this feast, as well as of the season of Advent, is for us to follow her example in turning away from all that diverts our attention from becoming ever more holy temples of God, for we want to receive Christ as fully as possible into our lives at Christmas.

An initial step in doing so is to ask in what ways we have refused so far to join our lives to His.  For like the rich fool, we have all viewed at least some of our blessings as ends in themselves. If we have made our money, possessions, and pleasures the measures of our life, we will begin to find healing from this sin by giving to the needy of our time, talents, and treasure.  The way to combat a settled habit of self-centeredness is to get in the habit of serving others, of taking tangible steps to reorient our lives toward our neighbors in whom we serve and encounter the Lord.  Especially in a season so corrupted by commercialism and selfishness, we should all find ways to show Christ’s mercy to others by generously sharing our attention and resources with those who truly need them.  Of course, that includes the members of our own families whom we so often neglect and take for granted.

In order to become faithful temples of the Lord, we must also pay attention to what we allow into our hearts and minds.  Some things, of course, simply do not belong in a holy temple.  In our world of round-the-clock entertainment, news, social media, and video games, it is so easy to fill our eyes and ears with messages and images that inflame our self-centered desires and fears, and which encourage us to view ourselves and others in unholy ways.  The problem is not simply with pornography, but also with so much media designed primarily to get us to consume more of it.  These messages are ultimately intended to make money for those who sponsor them, not to make us holy.  Think and pray about what you fill your eyes and ears with on a regular basis because you can be sure that it is shaping your soul one way or another.  If it fills you with anger, lust, envy, pride, fear, or despair, hit the off button. And if it does not help you become more like the Mother of God in welcoming Christ more fully into your life, then it would be better to turn your attention elsewhere.

Above all, we must devote ourselves to prayer during the weeks of the Nativity Fast.  Most fundamentally, that is how we welcome Him into our souls.  That means turning our attention to the Savior in humility, opening our worries, fears, weaknesses, and failures to Him. The same Lord Who was born in a barn wants to be present in our broken lives, healing and blessing us so that we will shine brightly with His holiness in a dark world.  He wants to make us His living temples, brilliant with the divine glory.  For that to happen, we must set aside time and energy each day to turn away from distractions and center our lives on Him.  That is how His strength will empower our weakened souls.

Now is the time to follow the Theotokos’ example of becoming a living temple of the Lord.  Most of us have decades of experience in foolishly worshiping ourselves and the things of this world.  Let us use the remaining weeks of Advent to stop following the bad example of the rich fool and instead to become more like the Mother of God.  Surely, there is no better way to prepare for the great feast of Christmas.

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